Though local teachers’ unions generate the most headlines, it is statewide unions that wield the real power, a new study found.
The Thomas B. Fordham Institute released a first-of-its-kind study this week that examined how much political power the teachers’ unions had in each state. Many unions were tremendously powerful, the institute determined. Teachers’ unions were among the top 5 donors to political candidates in 21 states. They were ranked as more powerful on average than all other entities—including businesses, advocacy groups, and the politicians themselves—in 20 states.
Unsurprisingly, teachers’ unions were strongest on the East and West Coast, and weakest in the south. One interesting exception was Alabama, which has laws that are uniquely pro-union, despite the state’s regional location and absence of mandatory collective bargaining.
Dara Zeehandelaar, research manager at the institute, explained that many states with a history of Democratic governance—like Alabama—had enacted pro-union laws, regardless of whether the teachers’ unions were particularly powerful in those states.
“Alabama is the perfect example of a state where collective bargaining is not mandatory, but what you have is a history of Democratic leaders, Democratic government, a Democratic legislative majority for like 150 years, up until 2010,” she said in an interview with The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Because they’ve had Democratic leadership for so long, a lot of the state policies are very union friendly.”
Teachers’ unions were comparatively weak in the Great Plains region, and strong in the Midwest.
But the state with the most powerful teachers’ union was undoubtedly Hawaii. Since the entire state is run by the same school district, the Hawaii union maintains a particularly robust monopoly on public education.
“Hawaii is actually really interesting because there’s no real competition among districts, among local unions,” said Zeehandelaar. “If they want to mobilize or strike or whatever they want to do, that happens on an entire state level.”
Teachers’ unions across the country have clashed with taxpayer groups and reform-minded politicians recently over a host of education issues, including school choice vouchers, merit-pay for teachers, and longer school days, all of which the unions oppose. Last month in Chicago, a week-long teachers’ strike forced Mayor Rahm Emanuel to back down on many of his education proposals.
But the unions don’t always fight school choice and merit-pay head on, said Zeehandelaar.
“A general trend is that we’re seeing unions getting on board with reform early so that they can help write the law,” she said.
According to Zeehandelaar, union leaders are adopting a mentality of “we’d rather be at the table than on the menu.”
“Having a tide of reform and the union deciding to be at the table, it depends upon your perspective if that represents a weaker union because they are forced to collaborate, or a union that is still politically strong, because they are at the table,” she said.
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