New Education Research: Unions Hurt Children
Translation: heavyweight research from a heavyweight scholar. Peer reviewed. The abstract explains the results:
Students of American politics rarely study public sector unions and their impacts on government. The literature sees bureaucratic power as rooted in expertise, but largely ignores the fact that bureaucrats often join unions to promote their own interests, and that the power of their unions may affect government and its performance. This article focuses on the public schools, which are among the most numerous government agencies in the country, and investigates whether collective bargaining by teachers—the key bureaucrats—affects the schools’ capacity to educate children. Using California data, analysis shows that, in large school districts, restrictive labor contracts have a very negative impact on academic achievement, particularly for minority students. The evidence suggests, then, that public sector unions do indeed have important consequences for American public education.Good scholars don’t just dump data into top journals without an explanation of the theory that led them to expect the results they got (or in rare cases, another result), and Moe lays out his expectations early in the article:
The unions use their power—their basic work-denial power, enhanced by their political power—to get restrictive rules written into collective bargaining contracts. And these restrictions ensure that the public schools are literally not organized to promote academic achievement. When contract rules make it difficult or impossible to weed out mediocre teachers, for example, they undermine the most important determinant of student learning: teacher quality (Sanders and Rivers 1996). And when contract rules guarantee teachers seniority-based transfer rights, they ensure that teachers cannot be allocated to their most productive uses (Levin, Mulhern, and Schunck 2005). Much the same can be said about a long list of standard contract provisions. This is to be expected. Except at the margins, contract rules are simply not intended to make the schools effective.Moe’s “dependent variable” (what he is explaining) is something called the API, which is derived from student test scores. The higher the API, the higher the test scores.
There are always methodological issues with an analysis of this sort. We might wonder, for example, whether heavily black districts with a lot of Democratic voters elect liberal school boards that readily cave in to the teachers’ union. But those districts might have kids that perform poorly for reasons having nothing to do with the quality of schooling. Moe deals with these issues decisively -- controlling for minority population in each district, as well as a host of other variables.
Bottom line: both at the elementary and the secondary levels, restrictive union contracts harm student achievement.
When Moe breaks down his results, some complication enters. Restrictive union rules seem to hurt more in large school districts, and in districts with a large minority population.
But of course, these are the districts most at risk. Unionization, in other words, hurts most in the places where conditions are already worst.
This study, in a way, is a follow-up to a 1990 study (Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools) in which John Chubb and Moe showed that private schools are better organized to educate kids than public schools. In that study they stressed the role of unions doing the same things they have done to kill the auto industry — introducing rigidity in how things are organized and promoting a “then versus us” mentality among the workers.
Quite simply: your pro-union liberal friends ought to be ashamed of themselves. Don’t look for them to repent anytime soon, however. Unions — and particularly the teachers’ union — are their political allies.