Teacher strikes and walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and elsewhere grabbed public attention last spring, but these wildfires of statewide activism are unlikely to spread far. In most states, teachers have unique and powerful advantages in local politics—advantages they’re unlikely to give up anytime soon—and they’re already active in state politics as well. It’s only in states that share certain key characteristics with West Virginia where the recent teacher walkouts might inspire more political action at the state level.
To understand what any interest group does, it’s important to “follow the interests.” What kinds of policies do its members care about? Which government or governments make the key decisions on those policies? In the case of teachers unions, the chief answer to the first question is: salaries, benefits, and working conditions such as class size and procedures for evaluating teachers. This isn’t to say that teachers don’t care about children and the quality of education; it’s simply that what unites teachers unions as organizations are teachers’ occupational interests. And the answer to the second question helps explain why teachers in Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia targeted their state legislatures: all four have statewide teacher-salary schedules. Such a policy doesn’t necessarily mean that all teachers in a state are paid according to the exact same schedule—local districts can supplement the statewide amounts—but it does mean that the state government plays a major role in determining teacher salaries. It makes sense, then, that teachers in these places would direct their protests toward the state government.
But most states don’t have state-mandated teacher-salary schedules. Instead, it’s the local school boards that make the major decisions about salaries and other matters of interest to teachers, such as how much an individual employee pays toward health insurance premiums. And as long as local school districts are the key decisionmakers on the issues that most directly affect them, we can bet that teachers’ organizations will focus their efforts there. Nothing about recent events changed that.
Spheres of Influence
Just as important as where these issues are decided is how they are decided. And in most places, many decisions about teacher compensation and school operations are hammered out through collective bargaining, a process in which teachers union representatives are direct and equal participants alongside school-board representatives. This bargaining power affords a built-in avenue of influence that most teachers have at the local level but not at the state level—which leads to another reason that teachers in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, and West Virginia targeted the state government: they are 5 of the 17 states that don’t require collective bargaining for teachers. In North Carolina, collective bargaining in public education is illegal.
Political realities also come into play here. As a general rule, the local political environment is more conducive to teacher influence than the statehouse is. State politics is crowded, with hundreds of interest groups vying for policymakers’ attention, and hundreds of actors holding a stake in taxing, spending, and regulation. Teachers have to contend with all of these potentially competing influences.
Local school-district politics tends to be quieter and much less crowded. School-board elections are notorious for their low voter turnout and scant media attention. And because school boards only make policy on a single issue—education—the only interest groups involved in the elections are those with a big stake in education policy. This can include a variety of groups, including businesses and parent-teacher associations. But the reality in many districts is that none of these other parties have as large and as direct a stake in local education policy as teachers unions. As Terry Moe of Stanford University has shown in his research, teachers unions are the most active interest groups in school-board elections in California, and they are strikingly successful in getting their preferred candidates elected (see “The Union Label on the Ballot Box,” features, Summer 2006). The payoffs of all this influence are huge, because it means that teachers unions are helping to elect the very people they bargain with. Teachers unions in states like California and New York aren’t going to give up this structural advantage just because of what happened in West Virginia.
This is not to say, however, that teachers in states like California and New York don’t also have interests in state policy. Of course they do: big ones. Teacher-tenure policies and charter-school caps are largely decided at the state level, as are most teachers’ pensions. And even though decisions about teacher salaries and health benefits are mainly made at the local level, the states contribute roughly half of the funding that pays for this compensation. The particulars vary, but state governments play a major role in deciding how much money local districts have to work with.
By “following the interests,” then, we should expect public-school teachers to be very active in state politics. And in most places, they are—and it’s nothing new. Teachers unions spend astronomical sums of money in state elections. Political scientists Clive Thomas and Ronald Hrebenar regularly interview experts to develop a ranking of the top-40 most influential interests in the 50 states, and they consistently find that state affiliates of the National Education Association vie for the first spot. Teachers unions don’t typically stage statewide walkouts, but that’s because they don’t have to. Strikes are costly, disruptive, and often illegal, and it’s never guaranteed that the public will side with the teachers once the schools are closed and the dispute is headline news. Why create all the commotion and uncertainty if you can influence policy without it? Often, the most powerful kind of political influence is exerted very quietly.
In most places in the United States, then, there isn’t much need for teachers to focus more on state politics. They already have a big presence there, and they have every reason to continue their efforts at the local level as well.
Power of Collective Action
So what happened in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia in the spring of 2018? Why the strikes?
Like any group of individuals with shared interests, teachers face a quandary when considering collective action. They stand to be better-off if they unite as a group to push for policies in their favor, but for the individual teacher, participating in those efforts is costly. It takes time and energy to lobby, protest, and strike. Forming an organization that will work on teachers’ behalf takes money—and that means charging dues. If someone can reap the benefits of the group’s political action without contributing to the effort, why bother contributing? Yet if every teacher were to think that way, no one would contribute, there would be no collective political action, and teachers as a group would be worse-off.
For most teachers and other government employees, the main solution to this classic problem arrived in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s—in the form of state laws that required collective bargaining (and sometimes also allowed agency fees). These “duty-to-bargain” laws gave government employees a critical incentive to organize into unions, because suddenly the payoffs for doing so were enormous, and because teachers who opted out of the union would often have to pay agency fees anyway. In the states where the laws were passed, the public sector unionized rapidly, and gave rise to strong teachers’ organizations, with both members and money providing clout.
But in states like Arizona and Kentucky, this never happened. Duty-to-bargain laws were not enacted. Local teachers unions can and do form in such places, and they do get involved in politics, but usually they command far fewer resources—in the form of money, membership numbers, and political muscle—than their counterparts in states where collective bargaining is mandatory. In recent years, Minnesota, New York, and Rhode Island have boasted teachers union membership rates of nearly 100 percent, but in Arizona, Kentucky, and North Carolina, only about 50 to 60 percent of teachers are union members.
So today, successful teacher organization at the state level is entirely unremarkable in most of the country. But what’s happened recently in the six strike-affected states actually is somewhat remarkable. Why were teachers there suddenly able to take collective action?
Part of the explanation surely has to do with the rise of social media and changes in the technology that supports organizing. In Oklahoma, for instance, grassroots organizations and unions relied on Facebook groups to get 30,000 teachers to rally at the state capitol—a feat that would have been much more difficult 20 years ago. But those are just the mechanics; the motive is far more important. The seeds of that motive were planted when the Great Recession of 2007–09 decimated state and local budgets, and education funding went down with them. To make matters worse, public pension costs have climbed dramatically (with advocacy on the part of public-sector unions playing a big role in those increases, as Terry Moe and I have shown) and are still rising, with no end in sight. Topping it all off, a number of Republican-led states, including Arizona, North Carolina, and Oklahoma, have enacted tax cuts.
All of these trends hurt public-education funding. And as researchers at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities have shown, funding in a number of states hasn’t yet recovered from the recession. As of 2016, 19 states were still providing less per-pupil funding (inflation-adjusted) than they had in 2008. It’s probably not a coincidence that four
of the six states that had teacher walkouts this spring—Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado, and North Carolina—were among those 19 (see Figure 1). And per-pupil spending in those states is also well below the national average. What has happened, then, is that those drops in education funding have proven significant enough to spur teachers into action in states where they have historically been only weakly organized.
It remains to be seen whether the recent strikes will result in sustained teacher organization in states like West Virginia. At a minimum, however, the statewide teacher strikes are a shot across the bow. Teachers do face a collective-action problem, and when they aren’t well organized, perhaps it’s easy for policymakers to dismiss them. But politically speaking, that’s a mistake, because their potential for strength is enormous. More than seven million people work for elementary and secondary public schools in the United States. School employees have a presence in every state legislator’s district, Republican or Democrat. They care intensely about school funding. Even if they’re not currently well organized, or haven’t been in the past, they will notice when their pension or health contributions go up dramatically, or when they haven’t gotten a raise in several years. It just may be enough to spur them into political action. And if that should happen, then thanks to their numbers and their ubiquitous presence, they stand to be a political force to be reckoned with.
So, not much will change in the states where teachers unions are already strong and highly active in both state and local politics. But in states with historically weaker unions, policymakers should pay attention—and the message to them is clear: you can only roll back education spending so much before you provoke a rebellion by the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on it.