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Teachers’ Unions Are the Rorschach Test for School Reform

Teachers (and their unions) occupy the critical space where education policy and practice meet
By Rick Hess — April 13, 2023 7 min read
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Teachers’ unions loom large when it comes to education politics and policy. Depending on how you see things, they’re either essential champions for kids and educators—or the biggest obstacle to school improvement. Well, Boston College professor and Hoover Institution scholar Mike Hartney has written a terrific book, How Policies Make Interest Groups: Governments, Unions, and American Education, which helps illuminate some of the tensions behind the headlines. He explains the odd partnership between government bodies and the unions, in an analysis that helps make sense of the debates over school closures and pandemic schooling. Anyway, I asked Mike (who I’m proud to say once interned for me ... many, many years ago) to share some thoughts. He was kind of enough to comply, and this is what he had to say.


Teachers’ unions are education’s ultimate Rorschach test: Critics see special interest groups opposing common-sense reforms, but advocates see champions of workplace democracy and the common good.

The political battle over reopening schools during the pandemic offers a compelling example. Back then, having a seat at the table literally meant that districts had to reach formal agreements (MOUs, side letters) with their employees’ unions before they could reopen for in-person learning. In contrast, private schools and public schools that could avoid this interest-group bargaining were more likely to keep their doors open. Regardless of one’s views about reopening, the preferences of school employees were clearly better represented in these policy debates than were the voices of other stakeholders like parents. The reason why is obvious: Many states require that unions be a formal partner in negotiating working conditions. Bringing them on board was thus a prerequisite for many districts to return to in-person learning.

By putting that unique relationship at the fore of my analysis, my book is able to unpack the origins, power, and political activities of America’s teachers’ unions. Ultimately, these are issues that should concern everyone (whether they support unions or not) because teachers are primary influencers of student learning, and unions are primary influencers of education policy.

First, some history. The unions’ rise to power was not, as legend has it, a David-Goliath story of teachers conquering the education establishment through sheer grit. Instead, the state (government itself) played a rather decisive role in making powerful teachers’ unions a reality.

Prior to the 1970s, most teachers were inactive in politics. A 1956 NEA survey, for example, found that two-thirds of teachers felt they should forgo any political participation beyond voting. Even in school board elections, just 1 in 5 educators reported trying to persuade a colleague to support a particular candidate. Little wonder that political scientist Alan Rosenthal wrote in 1966: “Few observers of the educational scene thought very much of … the potency of teachers or their organizations.”

Then, by 1980, things start to get interesting. Teachers quickly became a powerful group in American politics. No organization, of any kind, sent as many delegates to the Democratic Party’s nominating convention as teachers’ unions did after 1976. During the 1980 campaign, Vice President Walter Mondale bluntly stated, “If you want to go anywhere in national [Democratic] politics, you better get the NEA behind you!” By the early 1990s, the NEA and its affiliates were a billion-dollar interest group.

Individual teachers also got engaged. By 1975, over 400 educators were serving in state legislatures, and the median statehouse boasted 10 percent teacher members. Unions also began to dominate local school politics. Today, studies show that union-backed candidates win about 7 out of every 10 board races, and a majority of school board members rated unions as the most active group in their district.

How did government help make this happen? Between 1960 and 1980, states adopted new public-sector labor laws that strengthened the political power of teachers’ unions. These new labor laws promoted collective bargaining, making it easier and less costly for them to recruit members, raise money, and mobilize teachers to participate in politics.

The empirical evidence for this claim is extensive. And readers interested in the nitty-gritty details can find a bevy of statistical tables and figures in the book. But the essence simply requires paying attention to two key variables: the year that states adopted mandatory teacher-bargaining laws and changes in the rate of teacher political activism within those states.

In short, I find that teacher political activity (e.g., phone-banking or canvassing for union-favored candidates) increased significantly in the years after a teacher’s state enacted a mandatory bargaining law. Similarly, one sees a huge uptick in the financial resources flowing to state union affiliates after these new laws were on the books.

Now, why does this all matter?

It helps explain why (with some exceptions) reformers have notched only modest victories since A Nation at Risk. To be clear, this isn’t because teachers’ unions are all-powerful and get everything they want. (If they were, educators would be paid lavish salaries.) But by virtue of their privileged status as an interest group “on the inside,” government policies enabled them to become, as David Tyack put it, “the [interest] group with the greatest power to veto or sabotage [school reform] proposals.”

Next, my findings showcase the consequences of governments choosing to bake unions into the fabric of American education. Former U.S. Sen. Mike Enzi, a Republican, once described interest-group politics by saying, “If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.” Applying Enzi’s formulation to education politics, when states adopted teacher-bargaining laws, they gave unions a permanent reservation at the school board meeting table. As UC-Berkeley political scientist Sarah Anzia explains, “In school districts with mandatory bargaining, teacher unions automatically get a place at the table: District officials are required to negotiate and reach agreement with teacher unions on salaries, benefits, and work rules.”

Finally, it explains why teacher labor law suddenly became a political touchstone around 2010. Prior to the Great Recession, states had mostly left these laws undisturbed. But when the financial crisis gave Republicans a window to retrench laws that empowered a key Democratic ally, they used it. Now, these laws are seen—by both pro- and anti-union sides—for what they really are: a tool that will either promote or diminish union power at the ballot box.

With the issue out in the open, Democrats aren’t being shy about their efforts to undo retrenchment. After the Supreme Court stopped teachers’ unions from collecting fees from nonmembers, Democrats pushed for new laws to soften the blow. Just as it made political sense for Republicans to retrench, it is understandable that Democrats are now trying to bolster teacher labor law. It helps shape the overall balance of power in education politics.

What should you pay attention to the next time teachers’ unions make headlines?

First, their influence is asymmetric. Unions can often block stuff they oppose even if they can’t enact their own agenda. COVID reopening fights were a prime example. To delay the return to in-person learning, unions only needed to find a single point of political leverage. Conversely, reopening advocates had to win approval at multiple bottlenecks.

Second, since union power tends to expand when political competition decreases, unions are more influential at the state and local levels. As UNLV professor Brad Marianno noted, “When [school reopening] decisions are brought down into local school board meetings, there remain only a few organizations [on par with the unions] that are organized enough to exert influence.”

Third, union power is related to the nature of the issue at hand. The public pays little attention to technical regulatory issues like teacher certification, evaluation, or pensions. This can give advantage to unions if elected officials believe these issues are not on voters’ radars.

Finally, on the 40th anniversary of A Nation at Risk, it is worth remembering that teachers occupy the critical space where education policy and practice meet. Since most state governments adopted laws that strengthened unions long before the reform movement got organized, reformers will likely continue to struggle to implement policy changes (e.g., teacher accountability) that provoke resistance from teachers and their unions.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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