Report Identifies Most Powerful State Teachers Unions

Published November 2, 2012

Education reformers and teachers unions often find themselves on opposite sides of reform issues. A new report from the Thomas B. Fordham Institute quantifies teachers unions’ strength state by state, enabling both sides to identify opportunities for their agendas.

The “top tier” union states will surprise few: California, Hawaii, Illinois, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Washington.

“Both sides agree that, for better or worse, teacher unions look out for teacher interests,” the report says. “This study sheds light on how they use politics to do this, by measuring teacher union strength, state by state, more comprehensively than any other study to date.”

One union, the Florida Education Association, called the report “laughable.” The report ranks FEA 50th out of 51 states and Washington DC. The New Jersey Education Association, ranked 7th, called the report’s metrics “silly,” though its spokesman agreed the union is “very strong.”

“How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions? A State-By-State Comparison” took three years to compile, said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. It measures union strength by 37 variables across five measures: Resources and membership, political involvement, scope of bargaining, state policies, and perceived influence.

Education Deeply Unionized
Education employs more unionized staff than any other profession, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The nation’s largest teachers unions, the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, have approximately 4.6 million members in total.

“I don’t think a lot of people realize how many teachers are unionized,” said Amber Winkler, a report coauthor and Fordham’s vice president of research.” Some people don’t even know how generous the terms are for what people can bargain over.”

The report mixes “hard” measures such as campaign donations and membership with “soft” ones such as perceived influence and ability to advance policy preferences, the latter partly based on surveys of state “insiders” such as legislators, school board members, and local education reporters.

Influence Over Classrooms
The report states no conclusions about the relationship between union strength and student achievement.

“[Unions’] whole existence is to safeguard teachers,” Winkler said. “In some ways that is in direct opposition to what’s best for kids, and I think most people recognize that.”

Unions, she notes, fight to hire and fire teachers based on seniority rather than quality, though higher-quality teachers increase children’s learning. And in the 32 states that require local school districts to negotiate with unions, “in the end that gives principals less leeway to hire the best people.”

Fordham’s surveys revealed “at least some evidence” union influence is waning, Winkler said.

“More and more union insiders were saying states are enacting policies less in line with union priorities,” she said. “All these conflicts we’re hearing about on the ground [indicate] that unions are feeling the heat more than they used to.”

Learn more:
“How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions? A State-By-State Comparison,” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, October 2012:

Image by Zol87.