Teachers’ unions and school board elections: Conflict of interest?

There is no doubt that teachers’ unions have a vested interest in the American public school system. As the exclusive representative of the system’s key employees — teachers — and the most powerful in the politics of education, teachers’ unions have a history of holding the keys to the organization of America’s schools.

Case in point: school board elections. Teachers’ unions often wield unequal power in these local elections, mobilizing their members to elect union-endorsed candidates who then become board members with pro-union attitudes on policy issues and collective bargaining.

School board members can, and often do, face pressure “to satisfy the preferences of groups (like teachers’ unions) that remain among the most organized and active players in district politics,” writes Michael Hartney of Boston College. “…[E]lected boards provide unions with another, often less competitive, political arena for them to shape education policy.”

This isn’t to say that union supporters shouldn’t have a seat at the school board table, as there are First Amendment implications of right of expression and right of association at work.

But I believe it is worth pointing out the union label on the ballot box, so that the general public is aware of the relationship between teacher union electioneering and labor-friendly deals at the taxpayers’ expense. It is quite a cycle, Jarrett Skorup with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy explains.

1) Government unions fund and campaign for school board members and other politicians; 2) those same politicians then support generous pay and benefits, and force people to pay dues and fees to unions, ensuring that 3) a portion of the money is routed back to the public employee union to start the cycle again.

As a growing body of research shows, “the dominance of teachers’ unions in school board elections challenge[s] pluralist characterizations of school board politics,” according to Hartney and his analysis on the topic. “…[U]nion-endorsed candidates are not more likely to win school board elections simply because they are stronger candidates ex ante but rather because union support confers an advantage that makes endorsed candidates more formidable on Election Day.”

It’s little wonder that, just when education-reform and parents’-rights groups have gotten more involved in school board elections [such as the Minnesota Parents Alliance] because of the pandemic, the education establishment has begun to cry foul.

It’s in teacher unions’ self-interest to be highly involved in school board elections. “With political clout like this, it’s no wonder why adult interests dominate our public schools,” writes Aaron Churchill with the Fordham Institute.