Another Argument In The Campaign Against Teachers’ Unions Bites The Dust

Jeff Bryant

For years, the campaign against public school teachers and their unions has lurched from one outrageous argument to another to support its case.

Teachers’ unions are accused of fighting for their salaries and benefits while ignoring the interests of school children. Prominent pundits say the unions “block needed reform” and protect “bad teachers” – even hiding sexual predators.

For every one of these over-heated claims, there are always powerful, fact-based counter arguments to dispel the many myths driving the anti-teachers’ union project.

Most recently, the twisted rationale for getting rid of teachers unions and the rights they’ve secured through years of struggle has led to the argument that unions play a role in misallocating resources – in particular, a role in sending the most qualified teachers away from where they are most needed: in schools with the most struggling students.

No one disputes the fact that disadvantaged children are often taught by under-credentialed, less-experienced teachers. But what anti-union operatives contend is that teachers’ unions, through collective bargaining or by pressuring public officials, are responsible for the fact that that best teachers are often misallocated to school districts with the most capable, well-supported students and that the unions simply don’t mind if underserved students get “the dregs.” The anti-teachers’ union campaign claims this misallocation is partly what causes achievement gaps in schools, which then lead to the vast socioeconomic inequality in society.

Now we know this argument is false too.

In a new report from the Economic Policy Institute, we learn, “There is no relationship between union strength and a misallocation of teachers that disadvantages students in high-poverty schools.”

The report calls the entire premise of union-created misallocation “a distraction from efforts to address the persistent nature of achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students.” It recommends that instead of continuing to engage in an effort to pin the blame of inequity on unions, there should be more effort and research invested in learning “why teachers sort the way they do.” The report anticipates that research into teacher distribution would likely find the reasons teachers tend to gravitate to the more highly performing schools is due to “other aspects of school finance and school quality (e.g., facilities, access to advanced classes, curriculum, climate, etc.).”

To compile the report, the authors looked at teacher credential data from the federal government, at well-regarded measures of teachers’ union strength, and at data on student poverty levels from the National Assessment of Education Progress (known as “the nation’s report card”).

In order to assess whether teachers are misallocated away from high-poverty schools, they compare the proportion of teachers having each of three quality measures (experience, credentials, major or minor in field) in high-poverty schools relative to the average proportion across all schools in the state. Then they examine these comparisons in the context of the measures of relative union strength to look for correlations.

Their analysis consistently shows, “Misallocations of teacher quality are not more nor less severe in states with stronger teachers unions.” Some states, such as New Jersey, Wyoming, and Ohio, actually have more experienced teachers in high-poverty schools. In New Jersey, again, and Hawaii, the high-poverty schools tend to have more certificated teachers.

The authors also find there are indeed states that have grossly misallocated its most qualified teachers, including Connecticut, Virginia, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Maryland, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and New York.

But in both states where the most qualified teachers are in the neediest schools and in states where they aren’t, the strength of teachers’ unions is simply not a factor. Strong union states such as New York and Pennsylvania can have the same misallocation problems as weak union states such as Virginia and Arizona. Conversely, some strong unions states such as Wisconsin and Hawaii do better at distributing qualified teachers, as do states like Tennessee and South Carolina that have relatively weak unions.

The authors agree there is an urgent need to address the persistent nature of achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students. Indeed, their analysis finds, “Almost half (47.7 percent) of U.S. public schools are high-poverty schools. The share is over two-thirds in Mississippi, Washington, D.C., New Mexico, Louisiana, Arkansas, Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Florida.”

But based on this analysis, the argument that somehow teachers’ unions cause the neediest students to be underserved should be rejected, and discussion needs to pivot away from these distractions to a focus on real root causes of the inequities in our schools.

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