The Impact of Unionism on the Quality of Public Education

One of the least examined and understood aspects of the decline in the quality of public education in America is unionism. There are several reasons for this.

One of the least obvious is that most critics of teacher unionism are conservatives. When conservative critics of teacher unionism address the topic, the focus of their concern is not with union impact on education. Conservative criticism of teacher unionism, particularly of the National Education Association, tends to focus on the union's social and ideological goals rather than the much more profound and pervasive negative influence the union, operating as a union, has on the quality of public education.

There are certainly ample reasons for liberals to also criticize the teacher unions but these unions are such an integral part of the liberal establishment's political base that such criticism is muted by political concerns, having little or nothing to do with objective intellectual and academic considerations.

This is not to say that the political influence of the NEA and its state affiliates on issues other than education is not substantial and perhaps in many ways harmful but these manifestations of teacher union political power do not have a direct impact on the quality of public education.

Of all the changes which have taken place in public education in the last three decades, none has had a more profound effect than the unionization of public school employees - particularly teachers.

Yet, in the study that launched the present public concern about the quality of public education, A Nation At Risk. there is not a single word even acknowledging the fact that public school teachers are members of labor unions.

The reason studies of public education do not include the impact of unionism is simple. The teacher unions are the major players in the education establishment. They are so powerful a force that no study can have acceptability in the education establishment without their participation, and they refuse to participate in any study which includes the impact of unions. Perhaps even more important, the teacher unions' political power is so great that it is virtually impossible for government sponsored research to deal with the question of the impact of unionism on education because political fear makes it unlikely that the research will be funded.

This ability of the unions to dictate in advance the outcome of education issues because of their status in the education establishment is not limited to studies on education. It manifests itself in many other fields including appointments to boards and commissions and participation in political advisory groups.

The most common and accepted measure of education achievement is the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) score. These test scores began to decline in the early 1960's and continued to decline for about twenty years. Since then, they have leveled off at an average slightly higher than their lowest level. Coincidental with the decline in SAT scores, the National Education Association began the process of converting itself from a broad-based professional organization of educators into a militant teacher union.

Between 1963 and 1981, composite SAT scores fell from 980 to 890, a decline of 10% while teacher union membership increased by 100% from 963,720 to 1,977,370.

There are undoubtedly many reasons for this decline in SAT scores. Many more people are completing high school and are considering going on to college. As a result, there are increased percentages of students who are taking the tests. Because in every population there are some who are smarter, or at least better test takers, than others, whenever you increase the percent of the population taking a test the average score is going to fall.

Union Membership Growth
Decline in SAT Scores
Year Composite SAT Score Teacher Union Membership
1963 980 936,720
1973 926 1,672,770
1983 913 2,204,753
1993 902 3,100,000(Est.)

              The question remains as to whether the unionization of teachers had any influence on this national loss of education competence. In a recent study, Sam Peltzman, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, said:

"I have found that the growth of teacher unionization has contributed to the student test score decline. Before 1960 hardly any teachers were unionized. In the 1960's, the growth of teacher unionization was very rapid. By the end of that decade over half the teachers were unionized, and today about three-fourths belong to one or the other of the major national teachers unions. This early growth was also accompanied by pressure on state legislatures to grant unions new rights, including the right to strike. These days teachers' strikes are an annual rite of Fall. In 1960, public employees didn't have the right to strike.
"The success of these efforts was uneven. Early victories in New York City and New York State spread to a few urban centers and then beyond. But there are still a few states in which teachers are not unionized. By using state-by-state student test score data, I have looked at what happened to student achievement in those places where the push for teacher organization was most successful most quickly. In these areas, student achievement tended to deteriorate more than average.
"This should not be too surprising. Unions have traditional concerns such as job security, promotions, and pay differential rules that may be in conflict with some educational goals. Union-style job security, for example, is not compatible with flexibility in replacing mediocre or poor teachers.
"The deterioration of student performance did not occur because teacher unions are indifferent or hostile to student achievement; the opposite may be more nearly true. But union concerns and education concerns aren't always compatible."
Unionism is harmful to the quality of public education in a variety of ways, some obvious, some not. It is important to keep in mind that these are problems caused by unions, not by some extraneous aspect of union activity, like their positions on social and political issues.
Teacher union growth began in the early 1960's when the National Education Association, in reaction to the American Federation of Teachers' victory in New York City, adopted a more aggressive stance in order to protect teachers from "the union." Until that time, the NEA had been a broad-based professional association of educators which included teachers, administrators, professors of education and virtually anyone else with a professional interest in education.

One of the major factors in the growth of the NEA as a union was the adoption of a policy of unified dues in 1974. Prior to that several state affiliates had already adopted a unified dues policy. Before unified dues, it was possible for a teacher to belong to a local classroom teachers' association without also being a member of a state or national association. Under unified dues, in order to belong to the local association a teacher was also required to belong to both the national organization and its state affiliate. This greatly increased the financial resources of the national organization.

The first and most important influence of unionism on education is collective bargaining. The growth of unionism in education coincided with passage of state laws giving teacher unions monopoly bargaining privileges. This gave the unions the power to demand recognition as bargaining agents and exclusive representation over all teachers in the newly formed bargaining units.

Why is collective bargaining in itself harmful? First of all, it destroys the appropriate role of the school board and school administration in school governance. Teacher union collective bargaining contracts are not limited to compensation issues. They also cover "terms and conditions of employment" issues.

Frequently, state laws which attempt to limit the scope of teacher collective bargaining preserve certain matters as "management rights" but then undermine this intent by requiring negotiations on the "impact" of these policies. It is virtually impossible to separate certain "terms and conditions of employment" or the "impact" of the policies from the policies themselves. This gives the union, through a collectively bargained contract, the power to dominate almost every aspect of school policy.

In the normal course of events, public school policies concerning subjects like assignment and transfer, curriculum development, text book selection and disciplinary policy, to name a few, should be considered by school boards separately from policies about teacher compensation. Including them in union contracts makes this impossible. Because the cost implications of union contracts usually overshadow these concerns, these other policies cannot be given adequate attention when included in the agreement. There is also a strong tendency, especially in times of austere budgets for school management, to trade-off such policy control for financial concessions from the unions.

It is characteristic of the negotiation process to make concessions at the last minute. As a result, it is all too common that agreements on union contracts are reached at the last minute. The school board finds itself called into an emergency session to consider a contract that will substantially influence almost every public school policy for the length of the contract - usually two or three years - without adequate opportunity for consideration and without any opportunity for input from other interest groups in the community who have a legitimate interest in school policies.

The unions' other major role in employment relationship, aside from contract negotiation and enforcement, is representing members in adverse actions. Unions spend an inordinate amount of time defending the employment interests of teachers who are chronic malcontents or incompetents. In some areas, unions are so powerful that school boards and administrators have virtually given up on the idea of getting rid of incompetents. This is not to say that more than a very small minority of teachers are incompetent. It only takes one or two incompetents to seriously damage education as students move through the system.

The egalitarian nature of unions also presents problems for education quality. Unions resist efforts to determine pay scales based on performance or on the scarcity of job skills. According to the Task Force on Federal Elementary and Secondary Education Policy of the 20th Century Fund,

"The organization - the unions and professional association - to which teachers belong have protected their weakest members rather than winning rewards for their strongest.
"The collective bargaining process, moreover, has not only made it difficult to encourage promising teachers or dismiss poor ones, it has forced many of the best to leave teaching for more financially rewarding work. The result is that the quality of teaching suffers."
In many states, the collective bargaining laws also gave the unions the right to force teachers to either join the union or pay an agency shop fee to the union as a condition of continued employment. Many outstanding teachers decided to leave the profession rather than to compromise their principles by joining or supporting a union.
Another inescapable influence of collective bargaining that has had a profound influence on education is the question of strikes by teachers. There is no doubt that the advent of unionism and collective bargaining was accompanied by a dramatic increase in strike activity.

A comprehensive study of all public sector strikes between 1958 and 1980 shows that passage of a compulsory public sector collective bargaining law correlates to a fourfold increase in the number of strikes against government.

For example, in Michigan there was one strike between 1958 and 1964. The legislation was enacted in 1965, and there were 759 strikes between 1966 and 1980. That's an average of 50 strikes a year -- a substantial increase.

In Pennsylvania, there were 72 strikes in the period between 1958 and 1969, an average of six per year. The law, Act 195. was enacted in 1970 and there were 767 strikes between 1971 and 1980, an average of 76 a year; more strikes per year than in the entire ten years before the bill was enacted.

These are the extreme examples, but during the entire period covered by this study, in no state did passage of a compulsory public sector collective bargaining bill result in a decrease in strikes against government.

Teachers have lost a substantial amount of their status and authority in the community by striking. It is likely that this is the case whether or not the individual teacher has participated in a strike or whether a school district has itself had a strike. The image of striking teachers is a frequent topic of editorial cartoons dealing with education issues. The first thought that comes to mind for many people when asked about teacher unions is not pay, but strikes. Teachers who disavow strikes or who refuse to participate in them have been substantially harmed by those who strike.

There is no question that a strike by teachers has a negative impact on the quality of education. In 1981, a study covering a decade looked at 46 school districts in Pennsylvania where strikes occurred and compared them to 88 districts of comparable size where strikes did not occur. It found that strikes had a negative impact on educational achievement, as measured by the Educational Quality Assessment (EQA), for a period of two years after the strike. This is tragic in any case, but is particularly harmful to juniors and seniors whose college entrance scores might be affected by strikes.

In addition to the direct impact on educational achievement, strikes impact on education by undermining the authority of teachers. Most teacher strikes are illegal. How can a teacher expect students to obey the rules when, if they don't get what they want, they strike?

Teacher strikes are also harmful to the quality of the school work environment. The teacher unions realize that a strike is more of a political than an economic baffle. They know that to win the political battle, they must characterize school board members and senior administration officials in such a way as to destroy public confidence in their leadership. This results in bitterness, which lasts long after the strike has occurred, making it difficult for the various components of education to work well together.

It must also he mentioned that because the unions have done such a good public relations job of placing blame for strikes on school management, the concessions made to avoid a strike are more harmful in the long run to the quality of public education than the strikes they are intended to prevent.

Unionization has also harmed education by putting so much of the focus of education issues on money.

Part of the problem here is a societal one. We, as a society, measure success by money. Whether it is a six figure income, a $50,000 car or a $500,000 house, it becomes the measure of success and this appeals to the unions.

We certainly would not contend that our local schools were superior because we paid teachers an average of $100,000, or that we purchased our school buses from Mercedes Benz or that we spent $50 million on a new elementary school.

Yet, I am unaware of any proposal by unions to improve the quality of education by reducing its cost. In fact, time and time again, any effort to reduce spending on education has been met by union insistence that you cannot reduce the cost without hurting the quality. When teacher unions strike for more money, they invariably tell the public that they don't want to do it, but that they have to "for the children."

All of this is hog-wash! Education spending differs widely throughout the country as does education performance. In 1993, per pupil spending ranged from a high of $10,561 in New Jersey to a low of $3,128 in Utah. At the same time, average SAT scores ranged from a high of 1,103 in Iowa to a low of 838 in South Carolina.

A careful look at the state-by-state comparisons of per pupil spending and SAT scores reveals that there may be a correlation between spending and performance. Some of the highest test scores are achieved in states that spend less than average on education. Of the top ten states in per pupil spending, only one is in the top ten SAT scores, and all the rest are below the national average. Of the bottom ten states in per pupil spending, four are in the top ten SAT scores, and none are below the national average.

Looking at it another way, only one of the top ten SAT score states was in the top ten per pupil spending, and most of them were below the national average. Of the bottom ten SAT score states, most were above the national average in per pupil spending.

The correlation between spending and performance is really inconclusive. According to figures from the Education Commission of the States, per pupil spending, adjusted by an interstate cost-of-living factor and changes in the consumer price index, peaked in several states during the last decade. In some of those states, SAT scores declined and in others they increased. Using these adjusted figures, per pupil spending in sixteen of the states was higher in 1992 than in any year in the decade. Average SAT scores declined in nine of these states and increased in seven.

Another dimension of union focus on money as the measure of education is its failure to apply some of the very basic principles of economics. It is generally true that the more something costs, the less people buy of it. It is also generally true that when the cost of one factor in production is increased, other factors are substituted for it. For years the unions have been operating on the assumption that the demand for education and teaching services was inelastic. This is proving not to be the case. According to Mary Fulton, a policy analyst for the Education Commission of the States, "We're seeing, as we did in the '70s, a growing anti-tax movement that is being played out in public education."

Ultimately, the problem for education is not so much the absolute amount of money spent, but the way that union influence has made spending the measure of all things to the detriment of other factors that are at least as important.

One of those factors which shows up frequently in studies of schools that achieve above average results with below average spending is parental and community involvement in the schools. In this area, teacher unionism deserves a severe indictment.

There is ample evidence that community and parental involvement in the schools is essential to successful education. Yet unions, whether intentionally or not, through collective bargaining, tend to exclude the community from the schools. Union contracts frequently provide that a teacher may not be required to meet with a parent without a union representative present. They also provide that teachers may not be required to stay after school to work with the students or to assist in school activities. These provisions are generally intended to protect teachers, but are, all too often, used by the union to bully them into reducing community involvement. A teacher who stays after school to work with students who are falling behind, after all, sets a bad example. If it is not stopped, this sort of behavior will come to be expected by all teachers despite the contract provisions protecting them.

Even though I said above that teacher union positions on political and ideological issues were not directly related to their impact on the quality of public education, the fact that these unions are so political does have an impact.

The teacher unions, like most public sector unions but even more so, are political institutions in several different ways. It is important to understand all of these political dimensions in order to fully comprehend the impact of this on the quality of public education.

These unions are first political because they become certified as the monopoly representative of all teachers in a collective bargaining unit through a political process - a certification election. In order to win a certification election, the unions must convince the majority of the teachers that they need union representation - that, absent union representation their employer, the school board, and ultimately the public, will not treat them well, or at the very least that they will be somehow better off if they are represented by a union. Unions cannot conduct efforts along these lines without raising concerns, founded or not, about the integrity and good will of both elected and appointed management.

In addition, unions are political because their own leaders are elected. Once union power has been established through recognition as the monopoly representative, those who have the grandest view of what the union can accomplish, or perhaps more accurately, the most negative view of their employment situation, tend toward leadership positions. In their competition for leadership, they vie with each other to over promise future benefits from union representation under their leadership and to escalate the rhetoric against school management.

This union politicizing influence is reaching into the classroom. In Montgomery County, Maryland, the teacher union instigated a campaign in which teachers refused to write letters of recommendation to colleges unless the students' parents wrote letters to the school board demanding increased spending on education, and in California, the unions organized class projects in which students wrote letters to the Governor protesting cuts in the education budget.

Finally, unions are political in the external sense in their activity on behalf of candidates for public office. Much of the attention on teacher union political activity focuses on the major races like president and governor, but a very significant amount of their political activity is devoted to elections for boards of education through which they hope to determine in advance the outcome of the collective bargaining process. Again, in these activities, they are frequently in the position of denigrating incumbent school board members and administrations with which they disagree.

All of this political activity serves to create a situation that is destructive of both teacher morale and public confidence. It cannot help but to have a negative impact on public education.

A further influence of unionism on the quality of public education comes from the resistance of the unions to every proposed reform which would weaken union power and prerogatives. Union opposition to education reform is motivated by several different impulses.

With the competition between the NEA and the AFT, each union has been afraid to embrace reforms which might give their competition the opportunity to organize within their jurisdictions. Union opposition to reforms such as teacher evaluation, competency testing, recertification, changes in tenure rules, etc. stems from concern that union members who fear that they will fail such tests and evaluations will seek succor from a competing union.

The unions also oppose reforms that are contrary to the union's self interest as an organization. Anything that would lessen the power of the union or reduce the union's membership is automatically opposed. This is the central reason for union opposition to any proposals which would introduce competition into public education. The unions realize that because of political influence, their ability to organize public education is greatly enhanced, but that they have virtually zero ability to organize in private education. Anything that would move students, and therefore teaching jobs, from the public to the private sector meets strenuous union resistance.

It must be noted that the unions are pragmatic in their opposition to reform. Initially, they oppose reform until the demand for it becomes so great that further resistance is impossible. Then they embrace the reform, so long as they control it.

This is not an entirely bleak picture. There are many signs of hope on the horizon for real improvement in public education despite union opposition. The most important sign of hope is that just mentioned above. Some reforms are being accepted and union insistence on controlling them is not always successful. Some genuine education reforms are empowering teachers, something that the unions always said they wanted to do. These newly empowered teachers are discovering, however, that the union is an obstacle to their success.

Some good examples of this include the movements toward private practice teaching and charter schools where teachers really begin to control their destiny. Aside from the union fear of these reforms because of the introduction of competition into the system, teachers in these endeavors have shown little or no interest in unionism. No wonder the unions oppose them.

Another important reform that is bringing market forces to bear on education is contracting the management of schools and in some cases entire school districts to private, for-profit companies.

A further sign of hope is the fact that some light is finally being shed upon the teacher unions. It was an article in the June 7, 1993, edition of Forbes entitled "The National Extortion Association? Suffer the little children: How the National Education Association corrupts our public schools," which seems to have broken the dam. Several revealing studies have been published since then.

In November 1993, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy issued "Michigan Education Special Services Administration: The MEA's Money Machine." This is a report on "How the Michigan Education Association uses school funds to support its political agenda," which raised embarrassing questions about the operation in that state.

In December 1993, Indiana Policy Review issued "Inside the ISTA Payroll." This is a study of the salary structure of the Indiana State Teachers Association/NEA, which caused considerable embarrassment for the management of the union.

In February 1994, the Golden State Center issued "The California Teachers Association: Power Politics vs. Education Reform." This analysis of the political operation of the California Teachers Association/NEA tore the thin veneer off any claim they may have had to objectivity. This is billed as the first in a series of studies by the Golden State Center on the CTA.

Another sign of hope on the horizon is the emergence and dramatic growth of independent professional educator organizations. These groups, which reject the adversarial, confrontational and exclusionary policies of the unions are flourishing in many states.

A recent example of the union's problem comes from Fairfax, Virginia, where a merit pay plan was adopted despite strong union opposition. When finally, under continued union pressure, the merit pay plan was abandoned, hundreds of teachers who had been receiving merit pay left the NEA affiliate to form a separate independent professional organization.

Independent professional organizations have become so much of a concern to the National Education Association that at its 1993 convention, it revealed a plan to attack them. Such open attention is ample proof that the union sees them as a real threat.

It is no coincidence that this plan to attack the independent organizations was revealed at the same convention that approved a reopening of the merger talks between the NEA and the AFT. The NEA had gotten away for decades with the charade of posing as the "professional alternative" to the teacher union - the AFT. With the prospect of a merger in sight, union officialdom undoubtedly realized that these independent organizations would become an even more attractive alternative for teachers who reject union ideology.

Site based management also poses some very real problems for the teacher unions. The unions have been saying for years that their goal was to empower teachers - and the teachers believed it -when, in fact, their goal was to empower the union. True empowerment of teachers is a threat to the unions and the unions know it.

In Indiana, after the legislature enacted a plan establishing school councils, the union sent instructions to its contract negotiators saying that in their next contract they must insist on an agency shop clause - compulsory payment of union fees - because when the school council plan was implemented, many teachers would see the union as an obstacle to success and decide to quit. These instructions to negotiators also included a demand for a contract clause giving the union the right to appoint all school employee, parent and community representatives on the school council; another example of how unions seek to control reforms they cannot successfully oppose.

Ultimately, teacher union power depends on perception and deception. The unions maintain their political power in three different ways. First, teacher unions gain political power through the vast financial resources they control as a result of their monopoly status. These resources are used in a variety of ways to influence political outcomes. The unions sponsor political action committees with which they provide direct support to candidates and causes. They also maintain an army of highly trained, well paid political operatives which they can put into the field on short notice to influence elections.

Second, even though teachers are less than two percent of the population and surveys have shown that a very large minority of teachers do not share the union's left leaning political views, those teachers who are union zealots are highly motivated and well educated. As volunteers, even a small cadre of such activists can have a substantial influence on the outcome of a political campaign.

The third, and perhaps largest source of union political influence, is a question of perception. When the teacher unions endorse candidates, they proclaim them as the "education" candidates. The typical voter, not realizing the negative impact of unionism on education, or that these so-called "education" candidates are, in reality, those who are committed to maintaining the union's stranglehold, frequently vote for these candidates thinking that they are voting for better public schools.

All of the information that is becoming available about the teacher unions will undoubtedly make it much more difficult for them to continue with this charade.

There is already some evidence that teacher union power is eroding because of this better public understanding of their role in the decline in the quality of public education.

In April 1994, the Michigan legislature enacted a bill, despite vociferous union opposition, which rolled back the scope of teacher union monopoly bargaining and put teeth into the law against teacher strikes.

In April 1995, the Indiana legislature enacted a bill, over a governor's veto, to protect teachers who are not union members from being forced to support a union as a condition of employment.

Similar efforts are underway in several different states.

It can't be stressed enough that being anti-union is not being anti-teacher. The founder of the Public Service Research Council, Carol Applegate, was a career public school teacher. Many of the Council's strongest supporters are public school teachers, and the Council maintains very good relationships with organizations of teachers all across the country who are fighting against union control of public education.

A careful examination of the role of unions might bring one to the conclusion that rather than saying that being anti-union is not being anti-teacher, it would be more correct to say that being anti-union is being pro-teacher.

Public education is one of America's greatest strengths. Americans want and deserve top quality schools for the amount of money they invest in education. A well informed public will insist that their political leaders reclaim control of their schools as a necessary step toward restoring their quality.

David Denholm is the president of the Public Service Research Foundation, a research and education foundation concerned about the impact of unionism in government on government and union influence on public policy. Other papers by Mr. Denholm include:

Beyond Public Sector Unionism: A Better Way

Confronting Teacher Union Power

How a School Board Member Can Use a Union Agency Fee to Drive a Wedge Between Teachers and Unions

Teacher Union Collective Bargaining and Education Reform

To request copies or more information, please contact: David Denholm, President at, or send a written request to:

Public Service Research Foundation
320-D Maple Avenue East
Vienna, Virginia 22180
Phone (703) 242-3575
Fax (703) 242-3579