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In this video interview, Thomas Sowell compares the performance of charter schools and public schools, and claims that "teacher's unions keep schools lousy".

He seems to infer this from the claim that whether there is a teacher's union is the only difference between said schools. This inference seems to be a bit premature, much like the conclusions about race and racism which he argues against quite convincingly.

So my question is: Why does Thomas Sowell say that "teacher's unions keep schools lousy"? That is, what is the causal link between teacher's unions and lousy schools?

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    $\begingroup$ You could ask about whether teachers unions have a negative impact on the quality of education, but questions about the mental states of Thomas Sowell are not questions of economics. $\endgroup$ Commented Feb 15 at 10:05
  • $\begingroup$ @MichaelGreinecker, yes of course my question is not about mental states, but I am definitely also interested in the (proposed and possibly unproven) mechanism that would cause teachers' unions to impact the quality of education, not just in whether there is an effect. But if there is no effect, then I am interested in why Thomas Sowell seems so convinced that there is. $\endgroup$
    – hkBst
    Commented Feb 16 at 9:38

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Let me answer @Michael Greinecker's nicely rephrased question: "Do teachers' unions have a negative impact on the quality of education?"

There is a whole literature debating this question with no definitive answer but a nice and recent paper by Brunner, Eric, Joshua Hyman, and Andrew Ju, entitled "School Finance Reforms, Teachers' Unions, and the Allocation of School Resources", published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, shows that

Districts with strong teachers' unions increased spending nearly dollar-for-dollar with state aid and spent the funds primarily on teacher compensation. Districts with weak unions used aid primarily for property tax relief and spent remaining funds on hiring new teachers. The greater expenditure increases in strong union districts led to larger increases in student achievement.

So, they don't show any evidence that "teacher's unions keep schools lousy"!

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Unions are organizations that represent and try to maximize welfare of the workers covered by union, not welfare of society, consumers or non-union workers.

There are situations where unions, like the teacher union, as a byproduct to their main goal pursue actions that lead to improvement of quality of products for consumers and situations where they worsen the quality of product produced or situations when they have no effects.

The answer by Emeryville shows one such case where the effect was positive. In the case examined by Brunner et al 2020, union goal of increasing teacher pay lead to higher student achievement, because it increased monetary compensation and this likely helped to attract better teachers (at least that is the only plausible channel I can think off since there is pre-existing literature that shows that just increasing salary of existing teachers does not affect quality e.g. see high quality and highly cited experimental evidence such as de Ree et al 2016).

However, there are also different effects that unions have. For example, Lovenheim (2009) finds evidence that unions in many case lead to schools having excess staff without any positive effect on education (but negative effect on taxpayers).

Hence you cannot simply take one random paper like Lovenheim (2009) or Brunner et al 2020 and make clear conclusions because unions have varying different effects through different channels and these effects might not even be stable in time. You need to look at a literature as a whole or at a met studies that examine the literature.

Highly cited meta study on this question from Cowen & Strunk (2015), shows that:

We generally find that the preponderance of empirical evidence suggests that teacher unionization and union strength are associated with increases in district expenditures and teacher salaries, particularly salaries for experienced teachers. The evidence for union-related differences in student outcomes is mixed, but suggestive of insignificant or modestly negative union effects. Taken together, these patterns are consistent with a rent-seeking hypothesis.

This suggests that although sometimes unions might have positive effect on student outcomes, overall the negative and positive effects more or less cancel out. Hence, evidence on net shows that unions are primary tools through which unionized workers extract rents from wider society. This is not surprising result, since that is the job of an union, they are not charities set up to promote public welfare.

However, while I personally agree with the conclusion of Cowen & Strunk and think their meta-study is of very high quality, it is very difficult to aggregate net effect of an institution such as teacher unions since there are myriad of channels through which they directly or indirectly affect school quality. One could come to conclusion that the net effect is negative, although also to the conclusion that the net effect is positive. Sowell is well-known for being highly skeptical of most government interventions so he likely subconsciously or consciously decided to put more weight on the negative side.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hi! I am wondering if you could answer some follow up questions? 1. Did you choose a meta study [Cowen & Strunk (2015)] with non-positive effects on purpose to illustrate the ambiguity, or would you say that you are an expert in this field and it is representative of the frequently obtained results? (Or third option.) $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Commented Feb 17 at 7:51
  • $\begingroup$ 2. You write "it is very difficult to aggregate net effect of an institution such as teacher unions since there are myriad of channels through which they directly or indirectly affect school quality. One could come to conclusion that the net effect is negative, although also to the conclusion that the net effect is positive." Since most of the economy is not less complex than teachers' unions, I am wondering what you think about the usefulness of econometric studies about political economy, say, the effect of free markets on long-term growth? If you trust those results but not these, why? $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Commented Feb 17 at 7:53
  • $\begingroup$ 2. addendum: I guess maybe your point here is that it is usually possible to measure/model something in a way that will support a specific (perhaps prejudicial, perhaps random) outome, so that while some studies are good, a lot are mostly noise? $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Commented Feb 17 at 8:02
  • $\begingroup$ @Giskard 1. one of my MSc is in public policy, from university that’s in top 50, where we had class just on economics of education where this exact meta study was part of a reading list as good overview of this issue, I trust my old professor who did work in this area and is well cited, hence I think it’s good representation although I do not do work on economics of education myself. $\endgroup$
    – 1muflon1
    Commented Feb 17 at 11:46
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    $\begingroup$ Thank you for taking the time to respond. $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Commented Feb 17 at 14:36
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Teachers unions and teacher tenure are part of why government schools tend to be lousy (at least in the USA), but another problem is the semi-monopolization such schools enjoy, in that they're paid for via coercion (taxation), and thus have no incentive to deliver quality education. There's also another factor at play, the fact that schooling these days is still largely based on the Prussian system which was developed during the 19th century industrial revolution to churn out obedient serfs and worker drones. This system is woefully archaic and no longer that relevant to today's careers.

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    $\begingroup$ (-1) This is answer is not supported by facts or references to academic research. This hoi polloi SE currently requires such efforts even from the noble born. $\endgroup$
    – Giskard
    Commented Mar 20 at 5:24

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