union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

School deserts

New study shows just how hard it is to find a decent public school in Detroit — especially in 10 city neighborhoods

An alarming new study shows just how difficult it is to find a quality school in the city of Detroit — especially for families that live in certain neighborhoods.

The study from the nonprofit research organization IFF identified ten city neighborhoods where it’s extremely difficult to find a seat in a quality school.

Those neighborhoods are home to 30,000 children, but had just eight “performing” schools. The study defined them using the color-coded school ratings that state education officials assigned for the 2015-16 school year based primarily on test scores.  

That doesn’t mean Detroit doesn’t have enough schools. In fact, the study found that many of the city’s schools are half empty. The main Detroit district had physical space for more than  80,000 students in the 2015-16 school year but served fewer than 45,000 kids that year.

Some Detroit families travel long distances — at great personal sacrifice — to find better schools but even families with the means to travel can have difficulty finding a spot in a decent school.

The study found that the vast majority of Detroit children — 70,000 of the 85,000 Detroit children who attend public school in the city — are in schools that don’t meet the state’s criteria for performance.

“This report is not about criticizing our public schools without offering a path forward,” said Chris Uhl, IFF’s executive director in a press release. The purpose, he said, “is to give everyone with a stake in improving Detroit’s education system — the district, charter schools and their authorizers, the city, foundations, and, of course, our families — the neighborhood-by-neighborhood data they need to work together to find shared solutions.”

The study includes an online tool that allows Detroiters to see which neighborhoods have performing schools as well as the conditions of those schools, and the basic demographics of the students who attend them.

Click here to use that tool — and scroll down to read the full report below.

vote of confidence

Despite emerging grading scandal, Hopson gets longer contract — and a raise

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks at a back-to-school press conference for Shelby County Schools for the 2017-18 school year.

Amid a widening investigation stemming from allegations of grade-fixing at one Memphis high school, the school board made it clear Wednesday that it wants Dorsey Hopson at the helm.

The board voted to keep Hopson as superintendent until at least 2020, and to increase his annual pay from $269,000 to $285,000. That puts Hopson on par with Shawn Joseph, director of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, Tennessee’s second largest district behind Shelby County Schools.

The 8-0 vote came with one abstention from Chris Caldwell, who was chairman of the board in June when members voted to extend Hopson’s contract. (A technicality required the board to revisit the matter this week.)

“I cannot support the motion, either the dollar amount or the length,” Caldwell said. “We are in the middle of investigating a grading scandal…. This is far from over. So I think it’s premature to extend a contract to 2020. I think one year is all that I’m willing to agree to.”

But other board members said Hopson deserves more time because his performance has brought the district far more good than bad. His contract also requires a raise, they said, to correspond with hikes in teacher salaries the last two years.

“I know it’s not perfect. We’ve got a lot of balls in the air. It’s tough,” said board member Billy Orgel, adding that Hopson is doing “great work.”

The board’s vote of confidence came only hours after the superintendent spoke about the widening investigation into the high rate of grade changing at seven high schools including Trezevant High, where investigators found evidence of falsified grades and two employees have been fired.

Asked how much responsibility he bears as the district’s leader, Hopson told reporters that the buck stops with him.

“At the end of the day, as a superintendent, I’m really responsible and accountable for everything,” he said. “From my standpoint, I’ve tried my best to conduct myself in an ethical and transparent way. I think, if you look at my record, that’s what I’ve demonstrated. Having said that, when you’re in charge of an organization and something happens in an organization, you can’t shirk responsibility. Moving forward, what I’m even more responsible for is cleaning it up.”

Hopson has been in contact with the State Department of Education since September of 2016 when Trezevant’s new principal reported finding inconsistencies between report cards and transcripts. He ordered an internal review and, after the principal submitted a fiery resignation letter in June alleging a district cover-up, launched an external review by several investigators and a North Carolina accounting firm.

A technicality forced the board to revisit Hopson’s contract this week. In June, the body approved a contract that amounted to a six-year term — two years longer than allowed under a state rule, according to Herman Morris, the school board’s attorney.