Have School Reopening Decisions Been Driven by Union Influence?

In a new study, “Are School Reopening Decisions Related to Union Influence?,” Corey DeAngelis, the American Federation for Children’s national director of research, argues that reopening decisions are in fact related to teachers’ union strength. A prolific writer, Corey is also the executive director at the Educational Freedom Institute and has been named to the Forbes 30 under 30 list. I recently spoke with Corey about his paper’s findings and its implications for education.

— Rick

Rick: So what got you interested in studying this whole union and reopening question in the first place?

Corey: There was a stark contrast in the response to COVID-19 between school sectors. Private schools were fighting to reopen. Kentucky private schools, for example, took the fight to the U.S. Supreme Court for the right to provide in-person services for their customers when Governor Andy Beshear ordered them to close. Private schools in states such as Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin took similar legal actions. A Catholic private school in Sacramento even rebranded itself as a day care to get around the government’s arbitrary closure rule that applied to schools but not child-care facilities. But so many public school teachers’ unions fought to remain closed for in-person instruction. I also noticed a fascinating preliminary analysis by Dr. Jon Valant at the Brookings Institution. He used data from Education Week and found that public school reopening decisions were linked to political partisanship — but not COVID risk — in the surrounding area. That analysis did not include what I believed to be an important part of the story — union influence.

Rick: You’ve been critical of school districts and vocal about the benefits of school choice — tell us a bit about what sparked this way of thinking.

Corey: I attended government-run schools throughout my entire K-12 education, but I had the opportunity to attend a magnet high school. I believe that opportunity had a positive impact on my life trajectory — and I would like all families to have more educational options. During my studies in economics, I started to realize that the main problem with the K-12 school system is the monopoly power generated through residential assignment and guaranteed taxpayer funding. In a sense, the past year has highlighted this problem more than ever. The way that I would put it is that COVID-19 didn’t break the public school system — in many ways, it was already broken. The past year simply shined a light on the main problem with K-12 education in America: a long-existing massive power imbalance between the public school monopoly and individual families.

Rick: OK, let’s talk about your paper — how’d you go about studying whether school reopening decisions are related to union influence?

Corey: We analyzed data on school reopening decisions for over 800 public school districts provided by Education Week and for over 10,000 public school districts provided by MCH Strategic Data. We used regression analyses to examine the relationship between teachers’ union influence, as measured by four proxies — whether the state had a right-to-work law, Fordham Institute’s state ranking of teachers’ union strength, the share of unionized employees at the state level, and the share of unionized employees at the county level — and the district’s reopening decision. We were able to control for a robust set of county-level characteristics, such as COVID-19 risk as measured by recent cases and deaths per capita, the share of Trump voters in the 2016 presidential election, household income, educational attainment, and the race and age distributions.

Rick: All right, tell us a bit about your findings.

Corey: We found that school districts in locations with stronger teachers’ unions were substantially less likely to reopen in person even after we controlled for differences in local demographic characteristics. For example, we found that school districts in states without right-to-work laws were about eleven percentage points less likely to fully reopen in person, a forty-four percent reduction relative to the sample mean. Additionally, we found that a ten percent rise in union workers at the county level, and a ten percent increase in union power — as measured by Fordham Institute’s state ranking of teachers’ union strength — were both associated with around a one percentage point decline in the probability of public schools reopening in person. The results were robust to the four measures of union strength, various potential confounding characteristics, a further disaggregation to the county level, and various analytic techniques and data sets. We also found that political partisanship was a strong predictor of reopening decisions, but we did not find consistent evidence that measures of COVID‐19 risk were correlated with reopening schools in person. The keytakeaway is that school reopening has been more about political partisanship and power dynamics than actual safety concerns and the needs of millions of families.

Rick: If someone were to say, “Oh this is just an attack on the unions,” what would you say to them in reply?

Corey: The data speaks for itself. Many public school teachers’ unions have fought to remain closed by moving the reopening goal posts every step of the way. At the same time, the preponderance of the evidence indicates that schools can reopen safely and that preventing families from having the option of in-person instruction has harmed children academically, physically, and mentally.

Rick: All right, so what do you think explains what you’re seeing?

Corey: The main problem is the messed up set of incentives that’s baked into the public school system. It’s arguable that the public school employees are simply rationally reacting to those backward incentives. The monopoly receives children’s education dollars regardless of families’ satisfaction levels, families’ choices, and — as we’ve seen this past year — regardless of whether the schools reopen their doors for business. And the only way that we’re ever going to fix that power imbalance is to fund students directly so that families can access alternatives and provide schools with true bottom-up accountability.

Rick: So does this mean unions are or are not a problem?

Corey: I don’t have a problem with the existence of unions. I wouldn’t have a problem with a strike by Safeway employees, for example. In that scenario, families would be able to vote with their feet and go to Walmart or Trader Joe’s, and Safeway would feel pressure. But when it comes to a public school system without exit options, families are the ones stuck feeling the pain. Funding students directly would solve the problem by empowering families.

Rick: For policymakers, practitioners, or parents who read your piece, what would you encourage them to do?

Corey: A good solution would be to allow each individual family to make the in-person versus remote-instruction decision for their own children. A better solution would be to fix the root of the problem — the power imbalance — by allowing every family to take their children’s education dollars to the education provider of their choosing. We already fund students directly when it comes to Pell Grants and the GI Bill for higher education and with pre-K programs such as Head Start. The money goes to students and their families who can choose public or private, religious or nonreligious providers of educational services. The same goes for so many other taxpayer-funded initiatives including food stamps and Medicaid. With all these programs, we fund people instead of buildings. We should apply the same logic to K-12 and fund students instead of institutions. If a grocery store doesn’t reopen, families can take their money elsewhere. If a school doesn’t reopen, families should similarly be able to take their children’s education dollars elsewhere. As a matter of fact, families should be able to take their children’s education dollars elsewhere regardless of the reopening decisions. Education funding is supposed to be meant for educating children — not for protecting a particular institution. We should fund students, not systems.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

Direct Ed Policy Studies at AEI. Teach a bit at Rice, UPenn, Harvard. Author of books like Cage-Busting Leadership and Spinning Wheels. Pen Ed Week's RHSU blog.