From the Field

Teacher Unions: Heroes, Villains or Something in Between?

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Since the U.S. Supreme Court case Janus vs. AFSCME in 2018, public school teachers unions have been forced into a “right-to-work” framework that prohibits them from requiring union dues. In a new working paper, Melissa Arnold Lyon of Brown University explores the relationship between right-to-work policies on union power, students, teachers, and education policymaking. 

The results showed that laws prohibiting agency fees leads to a decrease in teacher union membership of about 40 percent, but the reduction in union membership did not decrease teacher salaries. There is evidence that the ratio of students per teacher increased and no evidence that student achievement increased or decreased. Thus, Arnold Lyon’s central conclusions are that right-to-work policies seem to lead to declines in teacher union power, but that weaker unions do not translate to political opportunities for education reform or improved student achievement. 

Arnold Lyon used multiple datasets, conducting a differences-in-differences regression methodology to evaluate the potential effect.

Teacher unions can’t be clearly characterized “as the heroes or villains in the story of American education,” Arnold Lyon writes. Sometimes unions make schools less efficient and sometimes they improve schools. “Teacher unions advocate for teachers’ job interests, which may sometimes align with student interests, but at other times they may conflict.”

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By Nima Rahimi