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Participation in Teachers' Unions is Down, And Likely to Tumble Further

The percentage of U.S. public school teachers participating in unions has been declining steadily over the last two decades—and the numbers are soon likely to take an even steeper dive.

About 70 percent of teachers participate in unions or employee associations, according to new federal data. That's down from 74 percent in 2011-12 and 79 percent in 1999-2000. 

The new data come from the 2015-16 National Teacher and Principal Survey, which was administered by the U.S. Department of Education to a nationally representative sample of 40,000 teachers. The previous iteration of the survey, called the Schools and Staffing Survey, has been released every four years since 1987

The teachers' unions have a nerve-wracking year ahead, with the U.S. Supreme Court set to hear a case that could deem one of their revenue sources unconstitutional—as well as prompt a sharp membership decline. That case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31, concerns agency fees, which are monthly fees paid to the union by people who are not members. The fees, which only apply in some states, aim to make up for the cost of collective bargaining, which benefits members and nonmembers alike. 

Many teachers who are forced to pay the fees end up joining the union—so the thought is that membership would go down if those fees were lost. And given the makeup of the court, the case is not likely to go in the unions' favor. 

Suburban Teachers Likely to Organize

Union participation is particularly high at suburban, medium-sized, and higher-income schools, the new federal data show. 

About 75 percent of teachers in suburban schools join unions, compared to only about 62 percent of those in rural schools, according to the data. (The numbers for teachers in city schools were not available.) 

Schools with between 200 and 499 students have a greater percentage of teachers participating in unions than schools that are larger or smaller. 

And teachers in more affluent schools—where less than a third of students qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch—are slightly more likely than their peers in lower-income schools to join a labor group.

The recent federal data also show the discrepancy between charter and traditional public school organizing: About 73 percent of teachers in traditional public schools are in unions or employee associations, while less than a quarter (24 percent) of charter school teachers participate.

As I wrote recently, some charter school teachers don't know that organizing is an option for them—but word seems to be spreading. The national teachers' unions and their local affiliates, despite being continually wary of the charter sector in general, have made headway in helping charter school teachers form unions.

The Education Department released an initial round of data from the teacher and principal survey in August. Those data showed that the teaching force is still largely white and female, but there are signs that it's growing more diverse. See the video below for more on what the U.S. teaching profession looks like. 

Alex Harwin, research associate in the Education Week Research Center, contributed to this story.

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