School & District Management

Running for a School Board Seat? This Is the Most Powerful Endorsement You Can Get

By Caitlynn Peetz — September 22, 2023 5 min read
People in privacy booths vote in the midterm election at an early voting polling site at Frank McCourt High School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in New York City on Nov. 1, 2022.
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If you’re running for a school board seat, there’s no bigger boost to your candidacy than an endorsement from the local teachers’ union.

School board candidates who win the support of their local teachers’ union win their elections nearly three-quarters of the time, with the union endorsement proving more influential than other endorsements as well as a candidate’s promise to focus on student achievement or an incumbent’s track record boosting it, according to a new working paper from the Annenberg Institute at Brown University.

What’s more, while a teachers’ union endorsement is particularly persuasive among Democrats and to a lesser extent among independents, it doesn’t even hurt a candidate’s chances among Republican voters, the research paper says.

The degree of teachers’ unions’ influence in school board races means that candidates who are most likely to support increasing teachers’ pay are, in effect, more likely to make it onto the local school board.

As school boards become a more hotly contested political battleground, with groups from both the right and left looking to invest big in such races in the coming years, the research shows that these newer groups have a lot of catching up to do to match teachers’ unions’ power.

Vladimir Kogan, director of undergraduate studies and a political science professor at Ohio State University, and Michael T. Hartney, an associate professor of political science at Boston College, came to their conclusions after conducting three different studies spanning more than a decade.

In the first study, voters in San Diego in 2012 were presented with one of two versions of candidates’ biographies—one that included endorsement information and one that didn’t.

They found that exposure to the endorsement information increased support for the union-endorsed candidate by about six percentage points. The impact was greatest among Democratic voters, who were about 12 percentage points more likely to vote for a union-endorsed candidate, compared to about six percentage points among independents. There was “basically zero” influence among Republicans, the researchers noted, but “it does not appear to harm candidates among any subgroup of voters.”

“That’s kind of surprising because you don’t see that in other areas,” Kogan said in an interview. “People have done similar studies with police union endorsements, and when you tell somebody that a candidate for city council is endorsed by the police union, Republican support goes up, but Democratic support goes down. But for some reason, teachers’ unions don’t have that symmetrical effect.”

Teachers’ union endorsements have ‘unique clout’

In the second study, conducted in January 2023, Kogan and Hartney replicated their earlier study, but at a national scale and with hypothetical candidates. The later study also controlled for other factors that could affect voters’ choices, like the candidates’ age and gender.

It asked respondents which candidate they would be most likely to support based on their biographies.

The results were strikingly similar to the 2012 study: Respondents who were told that one of the candidates had been endorsed by the teachers’ union were about eight percentage points more likely to support that candidate. As in 2012, the unions’ endorsements did not hurt a candidate’s chances among any voter group.

“We found that endorsement was one of the strongest predictors of voters’ choice,” Kogan said.

Voters were also more likely to support the union-backed candidates than those supported by the local newspaper and business leaders, “two other stakeholders likely to be well-informed and have at least some shared interests in the quality of public education, two key conditions thought to make endorsements credible for voters,” the research says.

“Although voters also appear to prefer candidates endorsed by chambers of commerce, local newspapers, and cafeteria workers’ unions, the effect of teachers’ union endorsements is larger in absolute terms,” the paper says. “Thus, teachers’ unions appear to have unique clout in potentially influencing voter behavior.”

Voters were also more likely to support school board candidates who had children of their own, especially if they were enrolled in the public school system. Candidates who had children enrolled in private schools were still preferred over candidates who did not have any children.

In their third study, Kogan and Hartney evaluated voters’ beliefs about union-endorsed candidates and how those beliefs compared to what actually drives unions’ support of certain candidates. They did this research using a database they created of union endorsements across California between 1998 and 2022.

Which candidates teachers’ unions support

They found that voters believe union-supported candidates will be the most effective at improving students’ academic achievement and be more responsive to parents’ concerns.

The unions, however, based their endorsements on different criteria: They were most likely to support incumbent candidates who had increased teachers’ salaries. There’s “very little evidence suggesting that academic improvement shapes union evaluations of school board candidates asking for more time on the board,” the research paper said.

Kogan added: “When it comes to endorsing incumbents running for reelection, it seemed the teachers’ unions don’t care about student outcomes at all. It doesn’t matter how we measure it, there’s no effect at all—it’s precisely zero effect.”

Spokespeople for the nation’s two largest teachers’ unions—the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—did not respond to requests for comment.

To be sure, school districts have reported growing difficulty in recent years staffing classrooms, and teachers in a recent survey reported that dissatisfaction with their base salaries, as well as long hours and sometimes poor working conditions, hurt their well-being and led them to consider quitting.

Past research has found that when comparing weekly wages, teachers earn an average of about 24 percent less than other college-educated workers.

And one study from 2022 found that higher-paid teachers led to students performing better on standardized tests, likely because increased pay attracts high-quality candidates, boosts teachers’ enthusiasm for the job, and increases retention rates.

Kogan said there are two important takeaways for policymakers from the research.

First, some states and cities have moved or considered moving school board elections from “off years” to align with presidential election years in an attempt to increase voter turnout and limit the influence of teachers’ votes and union endorsements. But, Kogan argued, if the average voter is more likely to vote for a union-endorsed candidate, switching election years might not have that effect.

Second, Kogan said, “It’s important that voters understand the unions are representing their members. Sometimes, the interests of their members are aligned [with voters’ priorities] and sometimes they’re not, but it’s important to keep in mind.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 11, 2023 edition of Education Week as Running for a School Board Seat? This Is the Strongest Endorsement You Can Get

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