WSJ Pushes Flawed Talking Point That Teachers Unions Hurt Students Of Color

The Wall Street Journal editorial board’s response to a California court decision that declined to review a challenge to state teacher tenure laws framed support for educators’ labor rights as a move to “deny upward mobility to poor black and Hispanic children.” The editorial ignores ample evidence that strong unions benefit low-income students of color and their neighborhood schools by boosting teacher quality and contributing to more equitable school funding, and that teachers unions routinely support efforts to combat racial and class inequality beyond the classroom. 

California Supreme Court Will Not Review Challenge To Teacher Tenure

California Supreme Court Declined To Rehear Vergara V. California, A Case Challenging Teacher Job Protections In The State. On August 22, the Supreme Court of California declined to rehear a case challenging state job protections for teachers, including tenure and dismissal and layoff policies. The case was initially decided in favor of the plaintiffs -- a group of children organized by an education reform group -- in 2014, but it was reversed in favor of the state in April. The plaintiffs argued that teachers’ job protections violated the constitutional rights of poor and minority students underserved by their local schools, while the state argued that educational inequality was not caused by teacher protections and that it ought to be addressed by the state’s legislature rather than its judicial system. The Los Angeles Times reported on the connections between this case and other reform-minded groups and related legal actions:

The case, Vergara vs. California, was closely watched across the country as a test of whether courts would invalidate employment rights of teachers on the argument that they violate the rights of students.

The assault on these protections is part of a broader approach to reforming education that would make schools more like the private sector, which relies on competition, measurable results and performance incentives.


The group Students Matter, which funded the lawsuit and recruited the students and their families, said it will continue to push for legislative change in Sacramento. It also is pressing its reform agenda on other fronts. In another lawsuit, the group is trying to force several school systems to use standardized test scores in teacher evaluations.

Student Matters has access to a network of philanthropists and foundations willing to bankroll its business-inspired vision of education reform.

Nationally, Vergara-like legal challenges are being pursued in New York and Minnesota. Neither appears close to resolution. [Los Angeles Times, 8/23/16]

WSJ Editorial Board Distorts Decision To Argue Progressives Hurt Black And Latino Students

Wall Street Journal Editorial Board Generalizes That Teacher Job Protections Hurt Poor And Minority Students. In response to the court’s decision not to rehear Vergara, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial broadly blaming progressives for working to “deny upward mobility to poor black and Hispanic children” by supporting California’s standard job protections for teachers. The editorial echoed the flawed argument of education reform groups, such as the group that brought the California case, that strong protections for educators contribute to educational inequality. It condemned the court’s decision for “doom[ing] tens of thousands of lives to diminished possibility, if not poverty” in order to protect “failure factories.” From the August 22 editorial:

Remember when progressives worked to break down the barriers to minority education? You know, Brown v. Board and all that. Well, nowadays good liberals rejoice when their judicial friends deny upward mobility to poor black and Hispanic children.

That’s how the left reacted to Monday’s decision by the California Supreme Court not to hear an appeal of the Vergara v. California case charging that the Golden State has systematically denied minority kids trapped in failing schools their constitutional right to an education. The plaintiffs, backed by some public-spirited donors, had won in lower court but lost on appeal and now the state Supreme Court has doomed tens of thousands to lives of diminished possibility, if not poverty.

“I am relieved by the court’s decision declining an appeal of the unanimous California Court of Appeal ruling upholding California educators’ due process rights,” declared Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. At issue were the contractual powers of teachers that denied the due-process rights of students, but facts must be distorted when your first priority is protecting failure factories. [The Wall Street Journal, 8/22/16]

Strong Teachers Unions Do Not Overprotect Bad Teachers, And Can Benefit Poor And Minority Students, Schools, And Communities

Economist Eunice Han: Strong Teachers Unions Lead To Higher Teacher Quality. A February study from economist Eunice Han for the National Bureau of Economic Research examined “the myth of unions' overprotection of bad teachers,” by exploring patterns of teacher turnover in school districts with strong and weak teacher unionization. Han concluded that strong unions created a dynamic where high-quality teachers were retained at a higher rate, and lower quality teachers were dismissed at a higher rate. The research found that, as a result, teacher quality was overall higher in strongly unionized school districts, which in turn benefited students. From the study (emphasis added):

The model predicts that teachers unions, by negotiating higher wages for teachers, lower the quit probability of high-ability teachers but raise the dismissal rate of underperforming teachers, as higher wages provide districts greater incentive to select better teachers. As a result, unions help the educational system reach an efficient equilibrium where high-quality teachers are matched with high wages. ... The data confirms that, compared to districts with weak unionism, districts with strong unionism dismiss more low-quality teachers and retain more high-quality teachers. The empirical analysis shows that this dynamic of teacher turnover in highly unionized districts raises average teacher quality and improves student achievement. [National Bureau of Economic Research, 2/27/16]

Center For American Progress: Unions Improve Economic Mobility For Entire Communities. A September report from the Center for American Progress found that children whose parents belonged to unions and who lived in communities with higher levels of union membership experienced better economic outcomes and increased economic mobility in the long term. The report summary concluded that many of the positive economic effects of unionization can go beyond higher wages for union families, extending to increases in mobility for nonunion families and entire communities (emphasis added):

There are strong reasons to believe that unions may increase opportunity. First, there are the direct effects that a parent's union membership may have on their children. Union workers make more money than comparable nonunion workers--what economists call the union premium--and when parents make more money, their children tend to make more money--which economists refer to as the intergenerational earnings elasticity. In theory, unionized parents should pass on a portion of the union premium to their children. There may be other channels through which children whose parents were in a union have better outcomes than other children: union jobs may be more stable and predictable, which could produce a more stable living environment for children, and union jobs are more likely to provide family health insurance.

But there are also a series of other ways that unions could boost intergenerational mobility for nonunion workers. It has been shown that unions push up wages for nonunion workers, for example, and these wage gains for nonunion members could be passed on to their children. Children who grow up in nonunion households may also display more mobility in highly unionized areas, for example, because they may be able to join a union when they enter the labor market. Finally, unions generally advocate for policies that benefit all working people--such as minimum wage increases and increased expenditures on schools and public services--that may especially benefit low-income parents and their children. A recent study on interest groups and political influence found that most of the national groups that supported middle-class priorities were unions. Another study found that states with higher union density also have higher minimum wages. [Center for American Progress, 9/9/15]

Rutgers University Education Scholar: Strong Unions May Be Connected To More Equitable School Funding, Not Student Achievement Disparity. In a 2012 analysis reprinted on The Washington Post's Answer Sheet blog in 2014, professor Bruce Baker of Rutgers University explored connections between states with strong teacher unionization and states' relative educational quality across several factors. Baker found that states labeled as strong union states were slightly more likely to have more fairly and better funded schools -- though those relationships were not necessarily causal -- and that union strength had “little or no relationship” to student achievement gaps. States with stronger teachers unions were found to have more competitive wages for teaching, theoretically attracting more qualified individuals to join the teaching profession. Baker’s data exploration, conducted in response to an accusation from The Economist that teachers unions hurt social mobility, concluded:

What we see is little or no relationship between union strength and achievement gaps. While this does not illustrate that stronger unions lead to smaller achievement gaps, it also does not by any stretch illustrate that stronger unions lead to larger achievement gaps, an expectation that might reasonably be derived from the claim made in The Economist.


So what does this all mean then? Are unions good or are they bad? Do they increase inequality and lower quality? It’s certainly difficult given the data provided above to swallow the bold assertion in The Economist that teachers’ unions are the scourge of the nation and primary cause of declining social mobility. [The Washington Post, 8/15/14]

Unions Also Advocate For Underrepresented Communities Beyond The Classroom

National Teachers Unions Have Fought For Greater Racial And Gender Equity For More Than A Century. A timeline from education research blog The Hechinger Report outlined how national educators unions and prominent state and city unions have included advocacy for students and teachers of color and for equitable pay for women educators in their contract negotiations and strikes since the first union was founded in 1857. In recent years, unions in Seattle, Detroit, and Chicago, have all included measures geared toward better funding and support for schools in communities of color in their collective bargaining efforts. [The Hechinger Report, 9/19/12, Media Matters, 5/2/16, 4/1/16, 12/22/15]

Princeton University Professor: Teachers Unions Give Political Voice To Poor And Middle Class. A 2014 book by Princeton University professor of politics Martin Gilens explored the connections between policy, lobbying, and socioeconomic status and found that teachers unions -- along with several other advocacy organizations -- were responsible for the rare instances in which the preferences and concerns of people who are less advantaged were represented in national politics. Gilens wrote that teachers unions -- among other lobbying groups -- served as allies for low- and middle-income Americans and that their lobbying support on select issues helped push policy toward the outcomes these groups supported. [Princeton University Press, accessed 8/23/16, 8/23/16]

In Recent Years, The Country's Largest Teachers Unions Have Formally Supported Social And Political Issues Beyond Teacher Wages And Benefits. Since 2014, the National Education Association and the American Federation for Teachers -- the two largest teachers unions in the U.S. -- have issued formal statements supporting racial justice protests on college campuses, advocating for strong measures for gun violence prevention, expressing solidarity with activists advocating for police reform after the shooting deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, taking a stance for comprehensive immigration reform, campaigning to end bullying, encouraging measures to support LGBT students’ civil rights, supporting parent-led hunger strikes for community schools in Chicago, supporting marriage equality, advocating for access to health care, expressing grief in the face of national tragedies, supporting increased access to community college, condemning bigotry against Syrian refugees, supporting law enforcement officers, and recognizing the value of affirmative action in higher education. [National Education Association Press Center, accessed 8/23/16; American Federation of Teachers Press Releases, accessed 8/23/16]

Creative Commons image via Flickr user Spencer Tweedy.