The XX Factor

Does Collective Bargaining Matter to Students?

Collective bargaining for teachers and other public sector workers (except police and firefighters) is over in Wisconsin . Except for wages (and raises are limited to changes in the Consumer Price Index), there’s to be no more bargaining over any of the various things unions bargain for: pensions, benefits, hours, breaks, vacations, workplace safety, retirement age. Union dues won’t be collected from paychecks, and most unions must hold an annual vote on whether most workers still wish to be members.

It’s a move that will affect Wisconsin’s 175,000 public employees directly, and its more than 800,000 public school students indirectly. And it’s not at all clear whether that’s a good or a bad thing for those students-which may mean that it’s neither.

Teachers unions do bargain for things that directly benefit students, like class size and spending on educational materials. And they bargain for things that affect students indirectly, like the length of classes, the number of breaks taken during a teacher day, and parent-teacher communications, although the result of those things is less clear. Collective bargaining rights do correlate positively with increased teacher salaries and greater school district expenditure -but it’s never been shown that more money equals better student performance.  As for collective bargaining itself, there’s no clear connection between the right to bargain and student performance. In New Mexico, where collective bargaining was required until 1999, then became optional until it was reinstated in 2003, performance of high-achieving students went up during the period when collective bargaining was not required, while the performance of lower-achieving students went down .

There’s no reason to expect wholesale changes in student performance in Wisconsin. For all the villification of teachers unions by one side and government administrators by the other, both groups still want to do right by students-no one goes into either teaching or runs for the school board because of the huge financial rewards involved. What’s more likely is that, as has happened in Virginia, where teachers have had essentially no collective bargaining rights for more than 20 years, teachers, administrators and school boards will find other ways to work together and negotiate things like benefits and teacher development. Long-established systems will still be slow to change, and some changes will, as they always have, work out for the better, and some not so much.  There’s still plenty to worry about when it comes to Wisconsin Republicans’ end-run around their voting system and the rights of Wisconsin employees-but its students will likely be just fine.