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Collective Bargaining and the Student Achievement Gap

A new analysis finds the best students are better off, while disadvantaged students are worse off, when teachers collectively bargain for a contract.
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As numerous states — most prominently Wisconsin and Ohio — consider curtailing the collective bargaining rights of their workers, the debate has largely focused on money and power. If public employee unions are de-authorized or restricted, what impact will that have on state budgets? Tax rates? Political contests?

When it comes to teachers, however, this discussion bypasses a crucial question: What is the impact of collective bargaining on students? A study just published in the Yale Law Journal, which looks at recent, real-life experience in the state of New Mexico, provides a troubling answer.

It finds mandatory collective bargaining laws for public-school teachers lead to a welcome rise in SAT scores – and a disappointing decrease in graduation rates. Author Benjamin Lindy, a member of the Yale Law School class of 2010 and former middle-school teacher, reports that any improvements in student performance appear to come “at the expense of those who are already worse off.”

Teachers unions, which can legally require school districts to engage in collective bargaining in 34 states and the District of Columbia, have been derided by many conservatives (and some liberals) as impediments to needed reform. But these arguments, as Lindy notes, largely take place without empirical evidence.

He found some actual data from the American Southwest.

“Between 1993 and 1999, New Mexico — like most states — required school districts to enter into a formal collective bargaining process with a teachers’ union once that union was properly recognized,” he notes. “In 1999, however, the enabling piece of state legislation expired, and until 2003 — when the legislature reinstated the law — school districts in New Mexico could refuse to bargain with teachers’ unions.”

This provided Lindy with “a previously untapped natural experiment.” He looked at state average scores on the SAT test from 1993 to 2005; graduation rates (that is, the percentage of freshmen who went on to get a diploma) from 1996 to 2005; and average per-pupil expenses from 1993 to 2007.

He found the ability to collectively bargain “appeared to have no effect on per-pupil expenditures.” (Undercutting claims that negotiations lead to budget-busting contracts.) But it did impact the other two measures, leading to “an increase in students’ SAT scores and a decrease in high school graduation rates.”

Why would those two measures move in opposite directions? Lindy has a compelling thesis.

“Absent collective bargaining agreements, teachers lost certain transfer rights,” he notes. In many districts, pre-1999 collective bargaining agreements allowed “senior teachers — those with the most experience, who are often higher-performing teachers — to concentrate themselves in a district’s higher-income, higher-performing schools.

“It is hardly surprising that established teachers at the peak of their careers would want to teach in a less-taxing environment, one with engaged students, engaged parents and newer facilities,” he writes. “High-poverty schools with lower-performing students, by contrast, wind up with the least-experienced (and least successful) teachers.

“This change in transfer rights is especially significant, because it helps explain not only why low-performing students began to improve (when the teachers lost collective bargaining rights), but also why the achievement of high-performing students began to fall,” Lindy writes. “If districts were able to shift high-quality teachers away from concentrated areas of high performance to areas of high-need, one would expect to see the performance of high-achieving students fall.”

So when contracts are negotiated that give teachers with seniority a major say in where they’ll teach, the result is already-advantaged students get yet another advantage: more experienced instructors. This helps them raise their test scores even higher. Meanwhile, the poorer kids get less-experienced teachers, leaving them still further behind and more likely to drop out.

Lindy concedes this analysis only provides “a starting point” in the attempt to gauge the impact of collective bargaining by teachers. He notes it does not take into account the “welfare gain that teachers experience under mandatory bargaining.”

Nevertheless, he concludes: “If one’s normative criterion is the maximization of social welfare, then mandatory collective bargaining is a poor choice for a state policy,” since the harm done to low-performing students arguably offsets the benefits to high-performing students.

Of course, negotiated contracts don’t have to give high-seniority teachers the right to choose their school. If nothing else, this study suggests school boards may want to think twice before bargaining away that control. While such a right has clear advantages for teachers, it appears to be at odds with a major plank of the progressive agenda: Ensuring equal opportunity for all.

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