Monday, January 20, 2020
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Supreme Court to hear union fair-share fee case

The Supreme Court agreed on June 30 to hear the case of Friedrichs v California Teachers Association next term, the SCOTUS Blog reports.

The case challenges the “fair-share fees” that unions are allowed to charge non-members. A win for Rebecca Friedrichs, the plaintiff in the case who refused to pay the fair-share fee at her school in California, would make unions weaker in that they wouldn’t be able to collect any money from teachers who didn’t want to join the union.

On her new website, The 74, journalist Campbell Brown asks what a ruling against unions could do for students. How would it affect their classrooms? she wonders in the headline. But then, she doesn’t actually address the question in the badly edited article.

Her gist, however, is that unions are driving down academic results for students. “The key piece of research in the area,” she writes, “is a 1996 study by Stanford University professor Caroline Hoxby that showed graduation rates declined in districts where unions gained strength.”

Unfortunately, that study is something close to 20 years old, making it far from the “key piece of research,” and it wasn’t exactly a landmark study at the time it was published.

In the many years since then, things have changed quite a bit in our schools. We didn’t rely on standardized test scores back then, for one thing, and what I would consider the only national test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, also called the Nation’s Report Card, paints a different picture of core subject learning in states where unions are strong (NAEP doesn’t measure results down to the school or district level).

NAEP scores are highest, in fact, in states like New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, where unions are much stronger than they are in southern states like Mississippi and Louisiana, where NAEP scores are some of the lowest in the country.

Of course, there are many, many variables at play, and I don’t claim there’s any direct link between union strength in a state and the scores of the state’s children on NAEP. Funding for schools, student poverty, family insecurity—those all affect academic performance and are much more problematic in states with weak unions as well, so isolating the effects of union strength on academic performance is all but impossible. But I also reject, without hesitation, Ms Brown’s claim that stronger unions lead to a decline in academic performance.

Furthermore, as Ms Brown reveals by the glaring omission of any answer to the question in her headline, the Supreme Court’s decision in Friedrichs isn’t likely to have much of an impact on students or their academic performance—at least not in the short term, which is the only term we can measure as Ms Brown wants us to measure it, namely on a standardized test.

Rather, unions in schools are strong because they have fought for the interests of teachers. Some of those positions have no doubt been detrimental to students’ academic performance, such as the last in-first out hiring and firing policies unions have backed or the step pay grids that were developed by unions in a very different time. These positions impede the progress of good teachers, especially of younger ones, and don’t help academic progress for our students.

But unions have also fought for due process for teachers, which has saved the career of many a good teacher who faced the axe of embittered administrators; smaller class sizes; equity in school funding, particularly for English language learners, students with disabilities, poor students, and minority students; better wages for teachers and, by extension, working-class Americans; and the professional status of teachers, putting them among the ranks of others who take a personal and vested interest and dedication to their work that goes far beyond hourly wage earners in the hospitality or fast-food industries.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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