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After assuring parents that she worked tirelessly to reopen schools even as many of her own local union affiliates fought against school reopening, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten has graduated from mere gaslighting to telling big little lies.
Responding to an important new book calling for public sector union reform in the United States, Weingarten claims that these reforms would hurt kids because, "Research shows that teachers unions are positively associated with student achievement."
Her evidence? She cites a grand total of two academic studies on the topic. This is disingenuous at best and a lie of omission at worst.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill, Nov. 1, 2017. (Reuters/Aaron P. Bernstein)
Let us offer up an analogy. Weingarten’s argument is akin to saying that Hydroxychloroquine and Ivermectin are lifesavers in the battle against COVID-19. Sure, one could find a supportive study here or there, but that doesn’t tell us whether most high-quality studies show that. They don’t. And neither does most of the research show that unions raise student achievement.
But don’t take our word for it. In a comprehensive literature review on teachers unions and student achievement published by the Economics of Education Review, Michigan State University professors Katharine Strunk and Josh Cowen concluded that "the evidence for union-related differences in student outcomes is mixed, but suggestive of insignificant or modestly negative union effects."
A few years later, Cornell University economists Michael Lovenheim and Alexander Willén conducted one of the most sophisticated and innovative studies on the topic of unions, examining the long-run effects of collective bargaining on students’ later life outcomes. Remarkably, these scholars found that boys who spent more of their childhood in a unionized classroom had lower (four percent) earnings and reduced labor force participation rates as adults.
But that’s not all. A year after the Cornell team’s study, Michigan State’s Strunk and Cowen reanalyzed the research on teachers unions. This time they offered an even stronger endorsement of the union rent-seeking hypothesis. "Because… unions may drive up [school] district costs… we conclude that at the time of this writing an evidence-based appraisal of union impacts supports the notion that union priorities (especially those won at the bargaining table) do not necessarily align with academic success in the classroom."
This evidence shouldn't surprise anyone. They are the teachers' union, after all, not the kids' union.
But once again, don’t take our word for it. In the past, union leaders have sometimes been candid about these dynamics. In 1997, for example, the president of the nation’s largest teachers union (the NEA) acknowledged in a speech at the National Press Club that, "in some instances," the union had, "used its power to block uncomfortable changes to protect the narrow interest of our members, and not to advance the interests of students and schools."
Teachers’ union boss Randi Weingarten gives a speech outside the Supreme Court on Feb. 28, 2023. (YouTube screenshot/Student Debt Crisis Center)
Randi Weingarten must know her claim is bogus. That’s probably why she closed her replies – like she closed the schools – when she tweeted out her opinion piece. If she really believed her claim were true, then she wouldn’t be so terrified of a little school choice competition, either.
To be sure, unions are not solely to blame for everything that ails American education. But as Stanford University’s Terry Moe explained long ago, "Some things are obvious. It is not good for children that ineffective teachers cannot be removed from the classroom. It is not good for children that teachers cannot be assigned… where they are needed most. It is not good for children that excellent young teachers get laid off before mediocre [senior] colleagues. Yet these are features of… American schooling that the unions fight for, in their own interests."
Those are some important additional facts to consider, but don’t expect Weingarten to be honest about them.
Corey DeAngelis is a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children.