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September 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-5


Terry Moe's Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools


Chapter 9 – The Politics of Blocking



The teachers unions exercise power over America’s schools in two ways.  The do it through collective bargaining.  And they do it through politics….The power they wield in politics may be even more consequential than the power they wield in collective bargaining….The public schools, after all, are government agencies.  Virtually everything about them is subject to the authority of local, state, and national governments – and public officials in all of these governments make their decisions through the political process.  The public schools are therefore the products of politics.


By law and tradition, the public schools are governed mainly by the states.  The enduring American myth is one of “local control” through school districts.  But the school districts are actually state creations, and all of their essential features – their boundaries, their organizations, their funding, their programs, their involvement (or not) in collective bargaining – are subject to state authority.  Any group that hopes to wield power over the public schools, therefore, needs to wield power in state politics.


The national government has also gotten much more involved since mid-century.  Its main vehicle has been the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), first adopted in 1965, which authorizes a variety of programs – particularly for disadvantaged children – and funnels billions of dollars through the states to children.  In 2001 the feds moved aggressively into the reform era with No Child Left Behind (NCLB): a groundbreaking revision of ESEA that created a nationwide system of school accountability (although the design left much discretion to the states).


For teachers unions, politics can be enormously advantageous – but it can also be enormously threatening.  Governments (especially state governments) are in a position to adopt virtually any work rules, education programs, or funding arrangements they want for the public schools, and the decisions automatically apply to all the districts and schools in the relevant jurisdictions…. But the downside is that reformers can do the same thing: by pushing for greater accountability, more school choice, pay for performance, and other reforms the unions find threatening – and turning them into the law of the land.


In either case, the stakes are huge.  Because the unions know this, getting thoroughly involved in state and national politics is more than just an attractive option for them.  They really don’t have any choice.  They need to invest in political resources and organization and to be active and powerful in the political process.  And that is exactly what they’ve done.


The teachers unions are a political money machine.  In national elections, despite enormous numbers and types of interest groups and their great diversity, they have doled out so much money to candidates and parties that they top the list as the number one contributors to campaigns over the last few decades.  In state elections, especially outside the South, their dominance is ever more clear-cut: they are almost always among the very largest contributors to candidates and parties, they regularly out-contribute general business associations (even when the latter are aggregated into one giant “group”), and in ballot campaigns they are consistently the political leaders and top contributors on their side of the issue….Money is no guarantee of power.  But it surely gives top-spending interest groups real advantages in the political process.


[However,] money is just one dimension of power for the teachers unions….In the eyes of many candidates, the teachers unions loom large not simply because of their campaign contributions, but because they can unleash an army of political activists at election time.  What other groups can do that?  This is something that requires numbers, organization, experience, and leadership – all of which the unions have assiduously cultivated over the years and that almost all other groups lack.


It is a fact that the teachers unions have vested interests in preserving the existing education system, regardless of how poorly it performs.  It is a fact that [the unions] are more powerful – by far – than any other groups involved in the politics of education.  And it is a fact that, in a government of checks and balances, they can use their power to block or weaken most reforms they do not like….Major reforms that attempt to address the fundamentals of poor performance and inject strong, performance-based incentives into the heart of the system have been resisted and undermined at every turn.


After a quarter century of reform, the nation has made scant progress.  Indeed, most of its reforms are not worthy of the name.  Its accountability and choice systems are too weak to do their jobs well and are under constant attacks intended to weaken them further.  And the mainstream reforms that make up most of what the policy process actually produces – more spending, across-the-board pay raises, more teacher training, reductions in class size – have little to do with student achievement, but a lot to do with why the American school system gets more and more expensive without gaining in productivity.


Thankfully, this is not the end of the story.  The downside is that the fundamentals that have driven it – the ever-present logic of power and self-interest, the uniquely American political system that favors blocking over reform – are not going to go away.  They help us to understand the past, they will help us to understand our present and our future, and they are surely sobering.  But the story, as it continues to unfold, is about to change considerably – because new forces are beginning to enter the equation, and they are destined over a period of years to break the unions’ iron grip on America’s public schools. And to make education reform a reality.




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