This commentary is by Stan Greer, senior research associate for the National Institute for Labor Relations Research.
Last month, education reporter Linda Jacobson, drawing largely on enrollment data furnished by the market research firm Burbio, published an eye-opening analysis of how public district schools are faring at attracting and retaining students more than three years after elected officials cancelled in-person instruction for the purported purpose of slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
When combined with the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2021 state population data for selected age groups and the National Education Association (NEA) teacher union’s 2020-21 membership numbers for its 50 state affiliates, Jacobson’s analysis shows that, in the period since virtually all schools nationwide have been reopen for full-time instruction, K-12 parents are continuing to vote with their feet in vast numbers against Big Labor-dominated government education.
Overall, the most recent one-year trend in enrollment data for the 41 states that have already made public their enrollment numbers for the 2022-23 academic year shows a strong negative correlation between union density in the academic workforce and growth in students enrolled.
For example, in 2021 the aggregate K-12-aged (5-17 years old) population of the eight states with the biggest percentage enrollment declines since 2021-22 (Hawaii, Illinois, New York, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, California, Louisiana and New Hampshire) was 14.0 million. Meanwhile, the aggregate K-12-aged population for the nine states with the biggest percentage enrollment increases since 2021-22 (Texas, Florida, North Dakota, South Carolina, Iowa, Montana, Virginia, Idaho and North Carolina) was 13.9 million, or nearly the same.
Even though the school-aged population was right around 14 million for the two groups of states, NEA teacher union membership in the states with the most severely declining student enrollments was nearly triple the overall membership for the states with the biggest increases in student enrollment: 974,000 vs. 328,000. Moreover, the pattern of parental foot-voting against heavily unionized government schools in favor of schools where union bosses wield relatively little clout is nothing new. It has been going on for many years, and became even more pronounced during the COVID-19 lockdowns.
If you make the very reasonable assumption that parents know and care deeply about what’s best for their kids, the logical conclusion to draw from the data cited above is that there is something seriously wrong with the quality of education in schools where teachers and other educators are subject to union monopoly bargaining.
A landmark 2018 analysis of state National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) math, reading and science results carried out by University of Texas economist Stan Liebowitz and his research partner, Matthew Kelly, confirms that parents who are getting their kids out of unionized school districts are likely providing them with a better future.
Among the array of variables that could potentially have an impact on student achievement studied by Liebowitz and Kelly, including students per teacher and expenditures per student, “union strength” (an index derived from how extensive union officials’ legal privileges are and how much political clout they wield, among other closely related factors) has the most markedly detrimental impact: “The union strength variable . . . has a substantial and statistically negative relationship with student achievement.”
But Randi Weingarten, president of the mammoth American Federation of Teachers (AFT/AFL-CIO), among U.S. teacher unions second only to the NEA in size, claims she is sure Liebowitz and Kelly are wrong, even though the nationwide pattern of parental foot-voting both before and since their study came out indicates they are on-target.
Weingarten and the handful of Organized Labor-aligned researchers she cites in an apologia for monopolistic unionism in public education she recently published in the Daily Beast do not even try to explain why, if corralling teachers and other school employees into unions actually enhances student achievement, American parents have for many years been far more apt to move their kids out of a unionized school district and into a union-free one than vice versa.
It may well be that the actual answer Weingarten and her cohorts have is simple: Parents can’t be trusted to know what’s best for their children, even if parents’ views on that matter are backed up by the research of capable scholars like Stan Liebowitz and Matthew Kelly. If that’s what Weingarten thinks, that’s what she should explicitly say.