Press Releases

News from EPI No relationship between teachers unions’ strength and the presence of less-qualified teachers in high-poverty schools

In Unions and the allocation of teacher quality in public schools, EPI President Lawrence Mishel and economist Emma García find no relationship between the strength of teachers unions and the presence of less-qualified teachers in high-poverty schools. In some states, high-poverty schools—defined as schools in which more than half of the student body is eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—have more experienced teachers (New Jersey, Ohio, Rhode Island, Wyoming, and North Dakota), more certified teachers (Hawaii and New Jersey), and more teachers with an educational background in the subject they teach (Iowa, in math) than average. In other states, the opposite phenomenon is found—but this is not associated with the presence of teachers unions.

“Blaming teachers unions for the performance of students in high-poverty schools is a dodge, and anyone who uses the unions as a scapegoat does not have students’ best interests at heart,” said Mishel. “What we really need to focus on are the socioeconomic challenges facing children in these schools. This means that we need to equip schools to better meet children’s needs, support children’s families both economically and socially, and pursue policies that make teaching in high-poverty schools more attractive.”

This report contributes to the debate over whether disadvantaged children are taught by less-credentialed, less-effective teachers and whether this misallocation could partly explain children’s differing academic performance across socioeconomic backgrounds. A major question in this debate is whether teachers unions, through collective bargaining or advocating for legislation, could be responsible for the presence of a gap between the qualifications of teachers in schools in general versus those of teachers in high-poverty schools.

“The claim that teachers unions play a role in keeping good teachers away from the schools in which they’re most needed is a distraction from the real problems affecting children in high-poverty schools,” said García. “To truly understand what might be keeping better-credentialed teachers away from the schools that need them most, we need to examine what other aspects outside of unions—including individual, school, and institutional factors—might be influencing their decisions and find ways to effectively support teachers and students in them.”

While the credentials of teachers in schools overall are better than the credentials of teachers in high-poverty schools, misallocations of teachers based on qualifications and credentials are not more or less severe or prevalent in states with stronger unions. Teacher misallocation problems occur in states with high teachers-union density (Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and New York) and low union-density (Virginia, Arkansas, and Arizona).