by Julie Heath
Ohio’s recent repeal of a law restricting public workers’ rights to bargain collectively recalls the battle between public sector unions and conservative state legislatures that occurred throughout the country last spring. From Ohio to Wisconsin and beyond, legislatures proposed bills to cut public employees’ compensation; and in some cases like Ohio entirely restrict public workers’ right to collective bargaining. While these proposals affected all public sector unions, teachers’ unions found themselves in the unique position of facing opposition from not only state legislators but also certain voices within the education system itself. This opposition used the attacks as a way to push for their education reform agenda.
The education reform advocates that lobbied against teachers’ unions in state legislatures last spring view unions as hindrances to the necessary innovations needed to bridge the achievement gap, in particular charter schools, and enablers against ineffective teachers that poison public schools. While having the noble aim of ensuring that public education serves all students well, these anti-union attacks on teachers’ unions are detrimental to their very aim of ensuring education equity for all. Teachers’ unions play an important role in ensuring that teaching remains an economically viable profession. Undermining the unions cuts both the compensation and unified voice which teachers rely on. This not only acts as a powerful disincentive for talented individuals entering the profession, but also crushes the economic and professional livelihood of those remaining in the classroom. If the achievement gap is to be effectively addressed, teachers’ unions are absolutely essential to a solution.
Undermining the unions undermines the sustainability of teaching as a profession. Unions raise the wages and benefits of unionized workers by roughly 28%. However, even non-unionized workers benefit from a unionized system. In an industry that is 25% unionized, non-unionized workers can expect to be paid 5% more than in a less unionized industry. Currently, education is one of the most highly unionized industries, having a 37.1% unionization rate. Despite this fact, the average starting salary for a teacher is $39,000 while the average ending salary is $67,000. Historically, any time a profession has de-unionized, wages and benefits have fallen. In fact, the American Sociological Association recently published a study that found much of the rise in wage inequality since the 1970s to be due to the decline of unions. If the unions go, so too will the economic sustainability of the teaching profession.
How would a decline in union membership affect efforts to bridge the achievement gap? For one, it would make teaching a substantially less attractive profession for talented individuals. Money is far from the primary reason to go into teaching; however, it could become the primary reason not to go into teaching if salaries and benefits are reduced. If the choice becomes one of entering the teaching profession and wallowing in debt or choosing a higher paying, less stress-inducing field, it’s safe to say most people would choose another field. At a time when we desperately need to be attracting the best and brightest minds to public education, this would be catastrophic. Additionally, it would dramatically reduce the economic power of those choosing to enter or remain in the profession. At the current rate, the average teachers’ pay is on par with a toll-taker or bartender, and 14% below the salary of professions requiring a similar level of education. A recent survey by the National Education Association revealed that 62% of teachers work extra jobs to make supplemental income. If the achievement gap really is driven by socioeconomics, it only stands to widen by undermining the economic power of the 3.2 million Americans that are public school teachers.
Beyond economics, unions should not be weakened because they give teachers a voice. When they are allowed the opportunity — as the union provides them — to come together and take their unrivaled first-hand knowledge to help develop school-wide policies, have a say in district or state policies, and aid in the formation of national education policy, the entire learning community benefits. The union helps facilitate the leadership of teachers, and the data indicates that this has a profoundly positive impact on student achievement. States where teachers’ unions have the strongest presence are also where test scores remain the highest. This trend holds true internationally as well. Finland consistently ranks at the top on international tests, and it boasts a fully unionized teaching force. While it may not be true that unions alone are responsible for high student test scores, the data does not in any way support the argument that unions negatively impact student achievement.
In short, you cannot “Race to the Top” for education while racing to the bottom for the teaching profession. Education reform advocates that argue “for students” while against unions must realize that a lasting solution to education equity must come in partnership with the unions that uphold teachers’ economic and professional dignity. Education reformers and teachers’ unions should take their common interest in making sure public education works for all children and come together to ensure statistically proven practices become policy; structural problems contributing to the roots of the achievement gap are addressed; and teaching is elevated to a profession to which the brightest minds can aspire. This is the only way good teachers can afford to stay in the classroom.