Political scientist and MI adjunct fellow Michael Hartney joins Theodore Kupfer to discuss education policy, the political power of teachers’ unions, and democratic contestation in the public school system. His new book, How Policies Make Interest Groups: Governments, Unions, and American Education, is out this month.

Audio Transcript

Teddy Kupfer: Welcome back to 10 Blocks. This is Teddy Kupfer, an associate editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Michael Hartney. He's an assistant professor of Political Science at Boston College and an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute. His research focuses on state and local politics, interest groups, and education policy. And his new book, due out this month, is called How Policies Make Interest Groups: Governments, Unions, and American Education. Michael, thank you very much for joining.

Michael Hartney: Thanks, Teddy. It's good to be here.

Teddy Kupfer: So, let's start with this book. I'll give you the floor. Why don't you just describe the basic argument? What's this book about?

Michael Hartney: So, at its core, the book asks, why is it the case that, certainly in the contemporary—and I would call that since A Nation at Risk, which was this big important government report that came out in the early 1980s that put school reform on the nation's political agenda—why is it the case that in education politics, teachers' unions have been and continue to be the most dominant interest group? And the book argues that it's not an accident, it's not an accident that teachers' unions and their members tend to vote more than other constituencies in school board elections, that their policy preferences are oftentimes much more reflected in education policy than other education interests or stakeholders, whether those are parents, or taxpayers, civil rights organizations. And the book argues that the reason for this dates back to changes that took place in the 1960s and 1970s, when state governments adopted labor laws that essentially—I'll use a non-jargony way to put it—that government picked winners and losers.

And those labor laws made teachers' unions winners in the interest-group marketplace, and the reason, or the way that they did that was that, under American labor law, under public sector labor laws, once recognized as the exclusive representative union—that is, once a majority of teachers vote and say they want to be represented by a union vis-à-vis their employer, which is the school district—they automatically have a seat at the table in education decision-making. So if we think back most recently to Covid school disruptions, in states where teachers' unions are empowered under labor law to have this seat at the table, local leaders had to get their buy-in to move forward on school re-openings. So that's just the latest example of this. 

And ever since the education-reform movement took off in the early '80s, it doesn't matter, the book argues, how much money education reform philanthropists like Walton or Gates give, or how angry you see parents get from time to time and get episodically involved in school reform, because the one constant is that labor law empowers teachers' unions not just with a seat at the table, but it actually helps teachers' unions mobilize their members in politics. And we can talk all about how that labor law does that. But essentially, the argument is that it took a stakeholder group, teachers, who obviously have interest in being involved in education, but it ratcheted up their strength when governments made the decision to provide collective bargaining rights to teachers' unions.

Teddy Kupfer: So one narrative one might hear is that teachers' unions have actually lost political clout in recent years following a general trend in organized labor. One can point to the 2000s, when some Democrats broke with unions to support reforms; the 2010s, when well-healed reform and charter groups gained prominence in some big cities; or 2018, when the Janus Supreme Court decision was handed down. But I think what I'm hearing is that these teachers' unions remain enormously influential. So, why is this narrative wrong, on one hand? And what are these enduring sources of teacher-union power?

Michael Hartney: Good question. So, I agree, I think, with people who would say that the teachers' unions—I wouldn't quite go so far as to say lost clout, but they suddenly found themselves facing political competition unlike the type of competition they'd seen before, I'd say starting around the Great Recession. So, in the late 2000s, I think that you had governors like Chris Christie and Scott Walker, who were able to speak to the public about issues that were suddenly relevant when state budgets were in the red. And so, you saw a lot of light shine on issues like teacher tenure, the way pensions work—all sorts of policy issues where the unions had been able to fly under the radar on these issues because they just weren't salient. I also agree that President Obama represented a thorn in the side of the teachers' unions, in that he pushed, like you said, for a lot of reforms, many of which states adopted under the Race to the Top programs, so things like evaluating teachers on the basis of student growth on test scores and the like.

But what people missed here was that our education system is very decentralized and fragmented in the United States. And what that means is that whether you're talking about a federal reform like No Child Left Behind, or you're talking about states enacting reforms around teacher tenure and evaluation, that at the end of the day, those reforms have to be implemented at the local level, and politically, teachers' unions just continue to be the most important political force at the local level in a lot of school districts around the country. The unions oftentimes get involved in school board elections. And my research shows that when they do, about seven out of every 10 times, their candidate wins. So, it wasn't enough for reform groups to catch lightning in a bottle at a politically challenging time for the unions because the union's power was able to endure.

And that's also due to something about America's political system more generally, which lots of people recognize and talked about, which is that our political system is rife with veto points. So for the teachers' unions, they're very effective at blocking and scuttling policy-reform adoption that they disagree with, and also they can scuttle implementation. So they're really effective at that. Where they're less powerful, I think, to be fair to them is they also can't get everything they want. So we notice that all teachers don't make a six figure salary in the United States, and that's not by accident because the same rule of veto points in our political system applies to unions as well. And if they wanted to get more resources for education and higher teacher salaries, they too would have to go up the political food change at the state and the federal level to get more resources, and they faced more political competition there. Where they have less political competition and continue to be dominant, that's at the local level. So they're not able to necessarily get the revenues they want at the local level, but they can block reforms that they find unpalatable.

Teddy Kupfer: You wrote a fascinating issue brief for the Manhattan Institute several months ago called "Revitalizing Local Democracy: The Case for On-Cycle Local Elections." So, can you talk a little bit about how our election laws may in fact give special interests more power than they would have otherwise?

Michael Hartney: Yeah. I mean, this is really important, because when you think historically about the position that conservatives have taken in regard to education policy in the United States, they tend to favor the idea of local control, of decentralized decision-making. And it's not that that impulse is wrong or problematic for conservatives, but one of the things that's important to consider is that we don't really have robust democracy at the local level when it comes to how we govern our schools. So because so many school board elections are held at times of the year that are not aligned with November even-year elections, when turnout tends to be high, you have frequently 5 percent, 10 percent, maybe 15 percent of eligible voters participating in local school board elections. You also have the fact that in almost every school district—there are a few exceptions—but almost everywhere school board candidates run without party labels.

So, citizens who go into the voting booth don't necessarily have an easy way to tell which candidates are likely to share their values or their philosophy about education, to the extent that we think partisanship, at least I would say in this current moment, is a pretty good proxy for that—maybe historically, not always. And so, because of these things, the average voter—and I would lump parents into that group—are at a structural disadvantage. Whereas if you think about the teachers' unions, they obviously aren't a majority in terms of voters, but in low-turnout elections, when their unions mobilize and rally behind a slate of candidates, they instantly have an advantage, and the numbers are really clear.

So, in California is a great example. Teachers' union-backed candidates do exceptionally well, over three quarters of them win when endorsed by the union. And the state recently changed its law to force districts that were continuing to hold these oddly timed elections with low turnout to now shift them to even years. And what you saw was, within the same district, a decrease in the success of union-backed candidates. Now it's not taking union-backed candidates from winning 75 percent down to winning 25 percent, but they're losing anywhere between 6 percent to 10 percent more elections than they were before. So they're a little less dominant.

So I think these structural reforms aren't necessarily a game changer, but they do—I think there's a lot of evidence to suggest they do put the unions on a little more equal footing with parent groups and other concerned citizens and stakeholders.

Teddy Kupfer: It's fascinating. So I want to switch gears a bit and talk about a story out of the state of Florida, which often anticipates political trends before they sweep the rest of the country. There were elections held on August 23rd in Florida, and Republican governor Ron DeSantis endorsed fully 30 school board candidates across the state. Seventeen of them were challenging union-backed opponents. Nineteen of those 30 candidates won; six more are headed to runoffs. What makes this move significant? You wrote about it in National Review. So, why is this a big deal? And do you think it's something that we're bound to see future statewide office holders imitate?

Michael Hartney: Yeah. I was surprised myself. On the one hand, it's not so surprising when you give voters a pretty easy cue for them to follow. I think most Floridians, whether they're super involved in politics or not, they know who Ron DeSantis is, and they can figure out whether they on balance agree with the guy or not. And so, I find it somewhat humorous, in fact, that so many of the governor's critics have assigned him labels like authoritarian, and anti-democracy, and all these sorts of things. What any political scientist worth their salt would tell you is that, at least when it comes to non-partisan school board elections, that what he did by putting out a 10-point education plan and asking school board candidates who wanted his endorsement to endorse the 10-point plan. What he did was he infused democracy into local school board elections in Florida.

He made it easy for voters to know, when they went to the polls, should I vote for the DeSantis-backed candidate or the candidate that the unions or the Democrats are running against the DeSantis-backed candidate. And in doing so, it gave voters on both sides a chance to weigh in in a meaningful way. I think the reason there are so many people in the education establishment who don't like this is because they're used to having a monopoly on these elections where they're not going up against a political force like DeSantis. And so, I think another important thing to consider here is that, yes, this is something that executives in other states, whether they're Democrats or Republicans—I'm all for democracy—stand behind what you believe when it comes to education and help your voters figure out which school board members to elect. These are important positions.

Remember, they're going to be the ones that implement and oversee at the local level what happens whenever the state legislature and the governor agree to a state bill. So, these are backwater races on the one hand, but they're crucial. And I would say that the lesson for Republicans here is, what DeSantis showed is that simply providing a roadmap and information about where these candidates stand has a more powerful effect, in evening the playing field between unions and other stakeholders than two other major things, which is one: we talked about election timing. I think moving to on-cycle elections makes sense. But like I said, that only had about an 8 percentage point effect of decreasing union support.

DeSantis took the unions from winning 70 percent of their races all the way down to winning 20 to 25 percent of them. And the other thing worth mentioning is, this also had a much bigger effect than even the Janus Supreme Court decision. So the percentage of union-backed candidates that won in California and New York, pre- and post-Janus, scarcely changed. So to the extent that conservatives were hoping that Janus was going to weaken the teachers' unions or put them into extinction, we're not seeing that. It turns out that maybe what you need more is a good offense than a good defense.

Teddy Kupfer: So, just to stick with this DeSantis story, one kind of broad view of American politics that you'll often hear is that competitive elections, the changing media market, and the rising importance of partisan identity have all served to nationalize American politics, to borrow the name of the book by Daniel Hopkins. So, in this story, voters once might have picked representatives who responded to local concerns, and they struck deals to advance the community's interests. Now, today they're pulling the lever for candidates who identify ideologically with more prominent national or statewide figures. Does DeSantis's move and the broader trend of competitive school board elections seem to be part of this trend? Or are you saying that the notion of a past non-ideological slate of school board candidates, for instance, is a false ideal?

Michael Hartney: Yeah. I had to chuckle when I saw column after column and the lead-up to the Florida elections labeling what DeSantis was doing as politicizing school board elections, because the reality is they're elections. They've always been political. It's simply the fact that the nature of those elections was less predicated upon partisanship and a high degree of information for voters, and instead, hinged more on lining up local notables or local interest groups. Maybe in some halcyon days in the '50s or '60s, when you had perhaps higher involvement in local school affairs and turnout was higher in the pre-unionization days, maybe you actually did get pluralism. I don't have any data to speak to that, but I can certainly tell you that since the unionization of the school employee workforce, the most dominant group—school board members report this in survey after survey—teachers win overwhelmingly.

When you look at the occupations of school board members, anywhere from 20 to 25 percent of them are current or retired teachers, and the vast majority of union-endorsed candidates win. So the idea that there's small-‘d’ democracy or hyper pluralism, where all stakeholders are getting represented, that world hasn't existed for a while in local school politics. So, it might be better if you had high turnout, and maybe you could have some dimension of politics that wasn't strictly partisan, but I would also say that, and this is really important, it's not that DeSantis just came out and said, these are Republican school board members, vote for them. Parties have been involved in nominating slates of candidates in non-partisan elections. That's not new. But what was different was he actually put out a 10-point plan that talked about things like, how should issues of race and history be taught in the classroom that talked about?

Even one of them, surprisingly, one of the things he said is he wants to raise teacher pay. Now the way he would want to do it looks very different perhaps than what the unions want to do. But the point is that he put out education proposals and on that basis, made endorsements. So I don't think we can just say that this is only about partisanship. I think it happens to be the case that we're in a moment right now where, when we talk education issues, an elected official's partisanship might signal in a stronger way where that candidate stands on education issues than perhaps 10, 15, 20 years ago, when you had a little bit more—certainly in the Bush administration or the early Obama years—where Republicans and Democrats agreed a little bit more on education-reform issues. But we're not in that world right now.

Teddy Kupfer: Right. As you're pointing out, we're in a world in which the classroom is becoming a political battleground. In that world, we've had some observers criticize what they see as the politicization of public schools, arguing that race and gender curricula, Covid reopening policies, masking policies—these are things best left to the experts, meaning the credentialed educators, to decide. But, as you've observed in research and on this episode, take something like Covid reopening: politics more than science is what shaped the school district decision-making on whether to re-open during the pandemic. Your research finds partisanship, union strength, and the presence of private competitors are all very important explanatory factors.

And some of these cultural issues seem to be rooted in a certain pedagogy whose underlying premises are, to put it charitably, not self-evidently true. So, talk a little bit about this national brouhaha over education. In general, what do you make of the debate? Why do you think these issues have become so contentious so quickly? And do you find these debates constructive and worth having, or do you worry that talk about something like race and history in schools distracts from other structural drivers of educational failure?

Michael Hartney: Yeah. It's not a pretty moment. I wish I felt that it were more conducive to having serious debate and dialogue at the local community level about what direction local school policy should take. But I feel like sometimes both sides engage in a caricature of what the other side stands for. I think there is probably a large middle ground where most Americans are, which is, I think most Americans very much want to see American history taught in a way that shows the warts and shows the achievements. But I also think that most Americans don't want school districts to have policies that sort students and emphasize their racial or ethnic background as the most important characteristic of them or the teachers.

I mean, we're seeing things, for example, I commented recently on the goings-on in Minneapolis where you had a teachers' union there negotiating a contract in which it would lay off teachers of color after white teachers when getting rid of seniority. Basically, swapping one really bad characteristic of these decisions using seniority rather than effectiveness or what's best for kids.

I mean, I think what this all boils down to is the adults aren't really being adults, and what I mean by that is that adults should, whether we're talking about how to use stimulus money to address learning loss or we're talking about how to decide if we go back during the pandemic, when schools ought to open for in-person learning. If adults were being adults, they would've made those decisions solely on what was best for children, what did the evidence show was best for kids, when was it safe for kids to go back to school, what is the best human resources' policy in a district. When you have to lay off teachers, it would probably have something to do with laying off the least effective teachers first and keeping the most effective ones, irrespective of seniority or race.

But adults aren't being adults. Instead, many of them—enough of them to create this ruckus—have decided to fight over adult interests and adult politics rather than focus on the needs of kids. And so, that's really bad going forward because, as a lot of evidence has come out, we've got major learning loss. And the only question that really should be guiding local leaders now is, how do I get the most bang for the buck in terms of the Covid relief money that I've gotten in order to turn around learning loss? So a good example of that is adults shouldn't be having debates over whether if they want to bring in tutors for kids, whether those tutors are unionized teachers or not, whether the money is spent on bringing in vendors outside that are unionized or not. Those are adult concerns. They're not concerns of children whose only real interest is getting an education that prepares them for college and career.

Teddy Kupfer: Thanks, Michael. I think that's well-put. Listeners, don't forget to check out Michael Hartney's work on the City Journal website. We will link to his author page in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter @cityjournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And as always, if you like what you heard on the podcast, please give us a nice rating on iTunes. Michael Hartney, thank you very much.

Michael Hartney: Thank you.

Photo by Paul Bersebach/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

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