I spent Memorial Day weekend reading Stanford University political scientist Terry Moe's new book, Special Interest: The Teachers Unions and America's Public Schools. It is a tour de force. Based on a mountain of data (about which I'll be blogging over the next few days), Moe delivers his critique of the teachers unions with hammer blows. He convincingly makes the case that the teachers unions--with over 4 million members--are the most powerful actors in the politics of American education.
The main reason teachers unions exercise such power is the asymmetrical incentives to mobilize. Parents, taxpayers, business, civic associations, and other groups have at best a fleeting interest in the politics of education. So reformers have great difficulty overcoming collective action problems in creating a coalition for educational reform. The unions suffer no such problem. Changes to the status quo directly impact them, which provides a huge incentive to remain vigilant about education policy. Unlike the reform coalition, Moe shows, the teachers unions are organized, have lots of money, access to information, and activists in the trenches. No other groups even come close to possessing such resources.
One of Moe's fascinating findings is that teacher pay (base salary) has not increased that dramatically over the last few decades because the number of teachers being hired has increased and the student-teacher ratio has fallen. If fewer teachers had been hired, salaries would be greater. Despite persistent cries that teachers are "underpaid," the unions are responsible for this outcome because they have competing motivations. One is to secure greater compensation for current members; the other is to get more teacher's hired, which increases the unions' power. The goal of increasing pay thus collides with government unions' incentive to expand public employment.