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Study shows strong teachers’ unions preserve education spending

Kathryn Kao

November 13, 2019

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After the 2007 housing crash and economic recession, state legislatures across the country cut education spending for the first time in more than a decade.

However, states with laws prohibiting collective bargaining for teachers made substantially larger cuts—with some making lasting cuts to K-12 public education, according to a new study.

“The results show that spending flattened during this period in states that were a little friendlier to teachers’ unions, while states with weaker unions made relatively more radical cuts to education spending,” said study co-author Walker Swain, an assistant professor in the University of Georgia College of Education’s department of lifelong education, administration and policy.

Swain and co-author Christopher Redding, an assistant professor in the University of Florida’s College of Education, used data on state-educational spending, politics, demographics, economic well-being, as well as union strength indicators—such as membership fees and fundraising—to assess the differences between states’ education spending levels in response to the Great Recession.

They found that states with collective bargaining for teachers to negotiate wages and other employment conditions experienced substantially smaller drops in teacher salaries, while states that restricted collective bargaining cut spending, on average, by more than $900 per pupil between 2009 and 2012.

Additionally, stronger bargaining rights were also associated with smaller student-teacher ratios. These results remained consistent even after controls for change, such as unemployment rates, demographics, political party affiliations, gross state product and per capita income, were included.

“If we understand a state’s educational spending as a function of its economic wellbeing, all of the states that prohibit collective bargaining made substantially larger cuts than what the prediction line would hold, in spite of the fact that some of them weren’t hit exceptionally hard by the recession, relative to other places,” said Swain. “In fact, some of these places actually had relatively strong per capita incomes, gross state products and modest shifts in employment rates relative to the rest of the states during that time. It’s like any way you slice it, those states made deeper cuts.”

While all states decreased education spending during the recession, states with stronger teachers’ unions made smaller cuts. In constrast, states that prohibit collective bargaining—Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and more recently, Wisconsin—made significantly larger cuts in education spending.

Recent studies show that cuts to education spending after the Great Recession negatively impacted student test score performance and graduation rates with the highest declines concentrated in districts with the largest reductions in teacher personnel. According to Swain, organized teachers’ unions can act as a safeguard against potentially harmful cuts to education.

“It’s not a causal story, but we’re saying that the strength of unions, particularly based on their collective bargaining rights and capacity to raise fees, appear to serve as protection against cuts to education spending, which is not particularly surprising,” he said. “We were, though, surprised by the consistency and magnitude of the cuts, particularly around the collective bargaining indicator.”

In a related research study, Swain and Redding are looking at whether teachers’ salaries are keeping pace with the changes to cost of living and how that relates to teacher mobility as cities bounce back from the recession and housing prices rise. Overall, the results from their study indicate that when budgets are tight and up for debate and teachers’ unions are weak, states are more likely to make larger cuts to education.

“The study points to well-organized teachers’ unions as being the important defender of education spending,” said Swain. “Since education is the biggest part of state’s budget, it’s the easiest place to cut during a recession. We’re not saying that these states have bad intentions, we’re saying that if advocacy from the group that’s directly impacted by those cuts is weakened, then they’re going to be quicker to cut them.”