During the Summer, 2011 the Thomas B. Fordham Institute conducted a national study on the strength of teacher’s unions and their role in shaping or reshaping education policy. The Executive Summary is outlined below and the full report can be found here. 20121029-Union-Strength-Full-Report
In recent years, debates over school reform have increasingly focused on the role of teacher unions in the changing landscape of American K–12 education. On one hand, critics argue that these unions, using their powerful grip on education politics and policy to great effect, bear primary responsibility for blocking states’ efforts to put into place overdue reforms that will drive major-league gains in our educational system. Such critics contend that the unions generally succeed at preserving teacher job security and other interests, and do so at the expense of improved opportunities for kids.
On the other side, we find union defenders who stoutly maintain that these organizations are bulwarks of professionalism in education, that their power is greatly exaggerated, that their opposition to misguided reforms is warranted, and that they couldn’t possibly account for achievement woes—considering that highly unionized states perform at least as well as any others (and better than many) on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and other indicators.
This debate has taken on an international aspect, too, as critics of U.S. reform initiatives (and defenders of unions) point out that teachers are unionized all over the world, including nearly all the countries that surpass us on comparative achievement measures such as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) and Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA).
Both sides agree that, for better or worse, teacher unions look out for teacher interests. This study sheds light on how they use politics to do this, by measuring teacher union strength, state by state, more comprehensively than any other study to date.
It sought answers to three questions:
1. What elements are potential sources of a union’s strength (i.e., inputs)?
2. How might unions wield power in terms of behavior and conduct (i.e., processes and activities)?
3. What are signs that they have gotten their way (i.e., outcomes)?
We do not limit the answers to those questions to routinely-studied channels of union strength such as membership density and bargaining status, though we do include those. We also include such other measures as alignment between state policies and traditional union interests, union contributions to political campaigns, and the impressions of union influence held by knowledgeable participant-observers within the states. We chose to focus on state-level unions rather than local ones, because the state organizations are apt to affect education policy on a large scale.
To gauge union strength at the state level, we gathered and synthesized data for thirty-seven different variables across five broad areas:
Area 1: Resources and Membership: Internal union resources (members and revenue), plus K–12 education spending in the state, including the portion of such spending devoted to teacher salaries and benefits.
Area 2: Involvement in Politics: Teacher unions’ share of financial contributions to state candidates and political parties, and their representation at the Republican and Democratic national conventions.
Area 3: Scope of Bargaining: Bargaining status (mandatory, permitted, or prohibited), scope of bargaining, right of unions to deduct agency fees from non-members, and legality of teacher strikes.
Area 4: State Policies: Degree of alignment between teacher employment rules and charter school policies with traditional union interests.
Area 5: Perceived Influence: Results of an original survey of key stakeholders within each state, including how influential the unions are in comparison to other entities in the state, whether the positions of policymakers are aligned with those of teacher unions, and how effective the unions have been in stopping policies with which they disagree.
Using these data, we rank the relative strength of state-level teacher unions in fifty-one jurisdictions as compared to one another (fifty states plus Washington, D.C.). To do this, we score the state separately on each of the five areas and rank the states according to those scores. We then average the five area scores and re-rank the states accordingly.