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September 2014 Policy Study, Number 14-5


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


Chapter 4 – Unions and School Boards



There is little research on the politics of school board elections and even less on the role of teachers unions.  This is unfortunate, because what happens on these scores is fundamental to an understanding of America’s public schools….To understand school board elections, we need to think about which groups have the incentives to get actively involved in them and, of these, which have the resources to do it with real power.  In both respects, the teachers unions clearly stand out from all other groups.


Their incentives to get involved in local elections are strong indeed.  Teachers, after all, work in the school districts, and their material interests are deeply rooted in how the districts operate, how they are organized, how they spend their money, and, in general, how they are governed.  In states…where collective bargaining in prohibited…it is even more imperative for the unions to flex their political muscles, because, lacking the power of collective bargaining, it is their only avenue of influence.  Fortunately for them, it couldn’t be more available: democracy literally invites them to choose the very public leaders who will be making the personnel, financial, and policy decisions they care about.


The unions in…districts [with collective bargaining] also have compelling incentives to elect district leaders.  Collective bargaining…is not just a matter of negotiations between two independent sides, one representing labor and one representing management, because the “management” sitting on the other side of the table is chosen through the electoral process – and can be literally chosen by the unions themselves if they have sufficient political power.  Although “management” is supposed to represent the interests of ordinary people, democracy gives the unions every opportunity to see that this doesn’t happen and that their own interests take priority.


In both respects, incentives and resources, the most reasonable expectation…is that the teachers unions will normally be the most powerful of all groups that might care about public education.  Parents certainly have strong incentives, but in most districts they are not organized (outside the PTA), not funded, not active – and not powerful.  Business groups, ethnic groups, and other community organizations have resources…but their social agendas are broad and diverse, and this gives the unions a huge incentive advantage – for the unions only care about public education.  This incentive advantage, in turn, should ultimately translate into a huge resource advantage: because they not only have massive resources to begin with (compared to most other groups), but also incentives to invest more of their resources in education-related politics and do it more regularly….These expectations apply to school board politics in California.  But they apply just as well to school board politics in Illinois or Florida or Tennessee.


We should expect the teachers unions to be extraordinarily powerful in school board elections – but we need to recognize as well that there are basic forces at work that constrain what they can do.  One is the presence of pluralism, which, particularly in large urban districts, may sometimes generate group competitors.  Another is political culture, which prompts the unions to endorse less sympathetic candidates in conservative districts.  A third is incumbency, which also compels them to endorse candidates that they are less than enthusiastic about.


The bottom line is not that the teachers unions consistently dominate their local school boards.  They are constrained.  Things don’t always go their way.  Nonetheless, they are by far the most powerful groups in the local politics of American education.  And they are quite successful at tilting the “democratic” governance of the local schools in favor of their own special interests.


It is not an accident, then, that school boards have been pushed aside in a number of major American cities and that mayors have stepped in.  The fact is, school boards have often been weak and ineffective at bringing real improvement to local school systems.  They cannot make change.  They cannot lead.  And a big reason is that they are beholden to powerful interest groups – especially the teachers unions – that don’t want them to make change and don’t want them to lead.  Mayors have bigger, more diverse constituencies, are able to act with greater independence and strength, and are simply better suited and thus a better bet for doing what is necessary in the face of union opposition….It is important to remember, however, that mayoral control is the exception.  Almost all of this nation’s school districts are governed by school boards.  That is the reality, and the implications for kids and schools are hardly inspiring.




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