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Beyond the Headlines: Are Teachers' Unions Really Under Attack?

Note: This week, Katharine Strunk, Associate Professor of Education and Policy in the Rossier School of Education and the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California, joins us as guest-blogger. Today's piece is coauthored with Bradley Marianno, a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of Southern California in Urban Education Policy.

Headlines in major newspapers and media bemoan how teachers' unions (and therefore, teachers) are under attack. The New York Times has run stories entitled "Teachers' Unions Last Stand," "A Bipartisan Assault on Teachers," and "In Standoff, Latest Sign of Unions Under Siege." Similarly, Fortune and Politico have "American Teachers Under Attack," and "The Fall of Teachers' Unions." And, of course, the Washington Post's "The War on Teachers: Why the Public is Watching it Happen," and (our favorite): "Chris Christie Wants to Punch the Teachers Union in the Face. But He Isn't the Only Candidate Attacking Educators."

From headlines like this, it's hard not to believe that teachers' unions are fighting a losing battle with state legislatures, legislators and political candidates across the country. It would appear that unions' rights, and the long-held protections for which teachers' unions have fought, are quickly melting away under the heat of public scrutiny and political opportunism.

This result would be surprising to those of us who study teachers' unions. Teachers' unions are one of the most powerful forces in American politics. They represent between 40 and 50 percent of K-12 public school teachers in the United States, and collective bargaining is not their only avenue of influence. Teachers' union also exert power in federal, state, and local elections. For example, teachers' unions contributed approximately 20 million dollars to state and federal campaigns during the 2012 election cycle alone. Teachers' unions are often the most active special interest group in school board elections, some say motivated by an effort to elect their own bosses.

So could it really be that all of the proposed and enacted legislation in the last few years is wiping out teachers' unions and the protections for which they've worked so hard? Did reformers succeed or has union opposition been poignant enough to stymie these attacks?

Today I'm joined by Brad Marianno, a doctoral student working with me at The Rossier School of Education. Brad begins to tackle these questions in a forthcoming article in the Journal of School Choice.  To do so, he reviewed nearly 30,000 state law summaries in the archives of the National Conference on State Legislatures and Lexis Nexis State Capital related to all proposed legislation in 19 different high-profile teacher-related policy areas between 2011 and 2013. These state laws covered both large-scale changes to public-sector bargaining laws that impact the rights of teachers to negotiate agreements with school districts, and more focused modifications to teachers' job protections and working conditions in areas such as tenure, discipline provisions, and performance evaluations. The final dataset included 2,902 laws proposed and enacted between 2011 and 2013, across all 50 states.

And from all this tireless research, what does Brad find?

Well, on first glance, it appears the national media may have had it right. Perhaps teachers' unions really are "under siege."

In 2011 alone, 21 "comprehensive" bargaining laws designed to substantially alter the rights of teachers to negotiate agreements with school districts were proposed in 16 states. Sixteen of the laws (76%) restricted collective bargaining in some way. Of these 21 proposed laws in 16 states, 5 states actually enacted new laws, all of which imposed new constraints on bargaining (though three of these laws were eventually reversed by ballot referendum). For example, teachers in Wisconsin were dealt a significant blow when Governor Scott Walker signed into law Wisconsin Act 10, which limited bargaining negotiations to only base wages.

Even as Scott Walker's Budget Repair Bill received significant national attention, many states were engaged in proposing and enacting narrower legislation designed to alter long-standing teacher protections, compensation provisions, and working conditions.  Between 2011 and 2013, 27 states enacted new laws designed to loosen up restrictions regarding the disciplining and removal of teachers, 21 states imposed additional requirements on teacher tenure (or removed tenure protections altogether), 29 states overhauled teacher evaluation systems in ways that run contrary to traditional union interests, and 12 states altered teacher transfer and vacancy provisions to provide more managerial control.  In fact, the majority of all state legislation enacted in these areas went against union prerogatives (between 69-83%).

But then Brad's findings gain a bit more nuance. First, the focus of the movement seemed to really occur in 2011. After this rush to legislation, comprehensive proposals significantly declined to just 10 in 2012 and only four in 2013.

In addition, the "restrictiveness" of the comprehensive proposals should not be surprising. Because a majority of states still require collective bargaining with teachers' unions, if lawmakers were going to propose and enact new bargaining legislation, it almost assuredly had to be in the direction of imposing new constraints.

Things get much more complex when Brad examines what happened within individual states. In most states, teachers' unions were not, in fact, under wholesale attack. This is easily seen by plotting teachers' "gains" in legislation (the proportion of enacted laws governing compensation, job protection and working condition laws that were "favorable" to teachers' unions) against their "losses" (the proportion of enacted laws governing compensation, job protection, and working condition laws that were "unfavorable" to unions). Examples of favorable laws include bans against the public release of teacher evaluations and delayed implementation of new performance compensation plans, while unfavorable legislation includes prohibitions on the use of seniority as a criteria in layoff decisions and the requirement that teacher effectiveness be the primary determinant in teacher transfer decisions.

In only five states did lawmakers pass legislation that was solely unfavorable towards teachers' unions (Wisconsin, South Carolina, Nebraska, Kansas, and Florida). Teachers' unions made at least some gains in 45 states. They made at least as many gains as losses in state-level provisions in 29 states. In fact, in 21 states they actually saw more gains than losses.

These data tell us that, aside from a few large-scale changes to collective bargaining, state legal provisions were altered in most states in ways that could hardly be classified as all-out assaults on teachers' rights. Instead, lawmakers made tradeoffs between imposing new regulations and providing teachers' with additional benefits.

In other words, the headlines had it partly right. No doubt, there is a debate raging about the role of teachers' unions in public education, and even more specifically, about the role of teachers' unions in setting local district policy through collective bargaining. The public, as well as legislators, are questioning teachers' unions' motivations and place in policy-setting.

A 2011 Gallup poll found that 47% of respondents believe teachers' unions harm the quality of public education (compared to 38% in 1976). A 2015 Education Next Poll places this number at 40% (compared to 31% in 2009).

But whether or not unions are under attack shouldn't be the headline. As we argued in yesterday's post, there is little empirical research about teachers' unions and teacher policies that can be used to inform policymakers about what legislation to enact and what policies might actually help teachers, schools, districts and, most importantly, students. So, perhaps we can put an end to the vitriol, vehemence and all-out warfare, and get down to the brass tacks of learning from all of these policy changes. We can learn which laws actually work to improve school and district operations, and in the end, student learning, so that teachers' unions and policymakers can work together to improve the lives of the teachers and students behind the headlines.

--Katharine Strunk and Bradley Marianno 

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