Impact of Weaker Unions in Wisconsin and Other States Much Clearer for Teachers Than Students

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In 2011, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker set out to reduce the strength of labor unions and limit collective bargaining in the state. The rest is political history: Despite massive protests, Walker and the Republican-controlled House and Senate passed collective bargaining limitations that decimated union membership.

In turn, Walker survived a recall election and won re-election to a full term. Last year, Donald Trump became the first Republican to win the state since Ronald Reagan in 1984, perhaps, in part, because of politically weakened unions.

A handful of other states, including Indiana and Tennessee, enacted similarly aggressive changes. Meanwhile, unions face a continuing legal challenge, after a divided Supreme Court did not issue a ruling in the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case, in which the plaintiffs argue that public sector employees should not be required to pay union dues because it violates their free speech rights.

The political and policy effects of these changes have been and will likely continue to be massive. Unions have long played significant roles in statehouses across the country, pushing for their preferred education policies, including greater school spending, limits on charter and voucher programs, and shaping of teacher evaluation and pay. Less-powerful unions will not exert the same influence in these key areas. National politics may also be affected, as Trump’s surprise wins in Wisconsin and Michigan suggests. Stronger unions are also associated with a larger middle class, which affects students and their families in their lives outside of school.

These ramifications of the rollback on collective bargaining are important, but the impact in classrooms across Wisconsin and other states has also been far-reaching. While the effect on student achievement remains something of an open question — initial studies have shown no immediate impact — a wave of recently released research shows teachers are paid significantly less, though they are more likely to be paid based on their performance.

Less pay for teachers, more likely tied to performance

A fairly consistent research finding is that unions raise wages for employees, and this generally holds up for teachers. It’s unsurprising, then, that the steps taken by Wisconsin led to a substantial decline in total teacher compensation — by about 8 percent, or $6,500 of total pay, according to one study. About two-thirds of that decline came in the form of reduced fringe benefits, including health insurance and retirement. The remaining drop was in salary, with senior teachers feeling that loss the most.

Similarly, a study of Tennessee’s rollback on collective bargaining found a 6 percent drop in teacher compensation, with the vast majority coming in greater health insurance costs. The percentage of health insurance premiums paid by school districts dropped by 5 percentage points.

The Wisconsin researcher was able to zero in on the effect of collective bargaining being weakened by comparing teacher contracts that were negotiated just before and just after Walker and the state legislature changed the law. In Tennessee, not every school district engaged in collective bargaining. The researcher compared the outcome of teacher contract negotiations in districts that did have collective bargaining — while it was still in place and after it was taken away in 2011 — with those districts that didn’t have it beforehand.

Performance pay good for student achievement, can worsen inequity

A large body of research finds that higher pay attracts more qualified people into teaching, gets them to stay in the classroom longer, and ultimately benefits students. Since teachers generally improve with experience, reducing pay among veterans may be especially harmful. In Wisconsin, the reduction in pension benefits seemed to have induced a large spike in teacher retirements.

On the other hand, research suggests that salary bumps should actually be front-loaded, since younger teachers are more likely to turn over. Teachers may value fringe benefits less than their salary. In theory, districts could reallocate money saved from teacher pay toward other beneficial uses, say, textbooks or teachers’ aides, but so far there’s not much conclusive evidence that this has come to pass, although it’s early. States might also simply reduce money spent on schools, particularly since teachers unions are among the most powerful advocates for increased school spending.

In Tennessee, despite the drop in wages, teacher turnover and student achievement have held steady, according to research.

The reduction in union influence has also led to an increase in performance-based pay and layoff systems, at least in Wisconsin. One study found that after Wisconsin moved to eliminate collective bargaining, some districts began paying teachers individually rather than based on a set salary schedule using years of experience and advanced degrees.

This is consistent with national research showing that the strength of teachers unions is associated with a lower likelihood of performance-based pay.

The Wisconsin study found that in individualized pay districts, compensation was related to teachers’ contributions to student achievement, and students in those districts made larger gains on state tests.

But this created more churn among districts — as high-performing teachers migrated to performance-pay districts — which can harm student achievement, particularly in schools that lose more effective teachers. In Wisconsin, affluent, suburban districts were more likely to adopt performance-based pay, which likely exacerbated inequity.

The research estimates the effect of merit pay on student achievement statewide and finds the effects are positive but much smaller than the gains in individual districts. That’s because individual districts can improve by poaching top teachers from other districts, but that does not lead to a net gain statewide — it simply transfers a good teacher from one school to another.

The paper notes that performance pay may help recruit better teachers into the profession. The evidence elsewhere on this front is mixed. Research using national data shows that districts with performance pay attract new teachers with higher SAT scores, though another study finds no effects.

D.C.’s teacher evaluation, dismissal, and performance-pay system seems to have led to gains in student achievement, with more effective teachers replacing those who were fired. But D.C. teachers — unlike Wisconsin’s — have extremely high base salaries. The starting salary for a D.C. teacher is just over $50,000, compared with around $37,000 in Madison, Wis.

One study argues stronger unions equal more teacher dismissals

Other recent research suggests that higher teacher salaries, negotiated by unions, have a surprising benefit: They encourage districts to get rid of bad teachers. That’s the provocative conclusion of University of Utah economist Eunice Han’s paper “The Myth of Unions’ Overprotection of Bad Teachers.”

Using national data, Han finds that in highly unionized districts and those that collectively bargain, the dismissal rates of pre-tenure teachers for poor performance is significantly higher than in districts with weaker unions.

That’s because, she reasons, those districts have more incentive to push out weak teachers pre-tenure because higher salaries make them more costly, and tenure makes it difficult to fire them. Tenured teachers are fired at similar — and very low — rates in strong- vs. weak-union districts, according to Han’s study.

In turn, Han finds, higher pay in schools where unions are stronger helps retain teachers. She says this also translates into benefits for students: nationally, districts with greater rates of unionization have lower student dropout rates.

“The data confirms that, compared to districts with weak unionism, districts with strong unionism dismiss more low-quality teachers and retain more high-quality teachers,” Han writes.

Then she turns to four states — Idaho, Indiana, Tennessee, and Wisconsin — that have recently scaled back collective bargaining. Consistent with other research, she finds reductions in teacher pay of around 9 percent compared with teachers with strong unionism and collective bargaining. Then the study shows that dismissal among untenured teachers in those four states dropped off after collective bargaining was weakened, while voluntary quits among all teachers rose.

However, Han doesn’t find immediate changes in student achievement in the four states, which she says is likely because she was able to observe only one year of data.

Han used her research on the benefits of union power in a friend of the court brief she filed in support of the California Teachers Association in the Friedrichs case.

(The 74: Teachers Unions At the Supreme Court: 9 Things You Need to Know About the Friedrichs Case)

An important limitation of the study is that it cannot directly measure the relative performance of teachers who are fired or retained. Han says she infers that dismissed teachers are not effective because the measure she examines is the number of teachers specifically fired for performance issues. She also points to research showing that more-effective teachers are more likely to quit voluntarily, suggesting that increasing retention is a positive; several other studies, though, find it’s less effective teachers who leave at higher rates.

Still, what’s surprising about Han’s research is that it suggests that muscular teachers unions reduce their members’ job security.  

Perhaps reform advocates and policymakers have focused more of their energy and political capital in districts and states with stronger unions, which might partially explain these results. For instance, in high-profile cities with strong unions, such as New York City and Washington, D.C., superintendents have weakened or made it harder to attain tenure.

In other instances, unions and supporters of tenure have argued that job security is valued by teachers, serving as an important part of their compensation. Han says, “My results imply that teachers unions reduce job security of ‘bad teachers’ while increasing job security for good teachers.”  

Again, we don’t know for sure the quality of the teachers staying and going. And, if prospective teachers don’t know ahead of time whether they will be considered good or bad, less job security might in theory deter even effective teachers from entering the profession.  

One recent study found that weakening tenure protections caused thousands of teachers in Louisiana to leave the field, though it could not distinguish between teachers who quit or retired from those who were fired for poor performance. It also did not look at the impact on student achievement.

In Wisconsin, anecdotal and survey evidence suggests that weakening collective bargaining led to more, not fewer, dismissals of struggling teachers.  

Han’s paper is not entirely consistent with previous studies on the impact of unions, though Han says that she identifies union strength in a broader and more accurate way than past studies by defining it to include not just whether collective bargaining exists but also the rate at which teachers are union members.

Other research has found that teachers unions have no effect or even negative effects on student outcomes. One study showed that when charter schools unionized, there was no long-run effect on student achievement, good or bad. A review of research on teachers unions found that their impact on “student outcomes is mixed, but suggestive of insignificant or modestly negative union effects.”

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