Politics & Policy

Widespread Exploitation

How the teachers' unions take advantage of their own members.

When it was recently revealed that the Washington, D.C., teachers’ union had been stealing money from its own members, some may have seen it as just an isolated incident. But financial exploitation of teachers by their own unions is built into the very structure of U.S. education. Not content with exploiting children by keeping them locked in failing schools, the unions also exploit their own members, most of whom are dedicated and hardworking professionals. While it isn’t as flagrant as stealing union dues — in fact, it isn’t even illegal — this form of exploitation involves far larger sums of money and far greater ramifications for society at large.

To see how the unions take advantage of their membership, we need to look at a major structural change in education over the past 30 years. According to the U.S. Department of Education, average spending per public-school student in 2000-01 was $8,830, almost double the $4,626 spent in 1970-71, adjusting for inflation. Given that national 12th-grade standardized-test scores have been flat over this period and the high-school dropout rate has gone up, it’s fair to ask just what the U.S. public has been getting in return for all this extra spending.

The single greatest factor driving the doubling of education spending in the last 30 years has been the hiring of a huge new army of teachers. Turning again to the U.S. Department of Education, we find that the number of students for every teacher in public school has shrunk from 22.3 in 1971 to 15.1 in 2001. This means that there has been a 48-percent increase in the public-school teaching workforce relative to the student population.

Since teachers’ salaries represent the bulk of education spending, a 48-percent increase in the teacher workforce probably accounts for close to half of the doubling in education spending. This is especially likely since teachers’ salaries have grown a little faster than inflation, from $40,850 in 1970-71 to $42,898 in 2000-01 dollars. Furthermore, the salary number excludes benefits, especially health benefits that have been increasing in value much faster during the same time period, so total education labor costs have probably increased somewhat faster than these numbers indicate.

But here’s the catch: Spending all that extra money to hire all those teachers hasn’t had much effect on class sizes. According to survey data collected by the National Education Association, the average number of students in public-school classrooms was 27 in 1971. By 1996 the average class size dropped to 24 students in elementary school, but rose to 31 students in secondary school. While parents constantly clamor for smaller classes, the 48-percent growth in the teacher workforce hasn’t made much of a dent in class sizes.

Why not? One major reason is that, while there are a lot more teachers per student than there used to be, each individual teacher is doing a lot less work. The same NEA survey shows that the average number of students taught per day by each secondary public school teacher dropped from 134 in 1971 to 97 in 1996. That’s a 28-percent decrease in each teacher’s classroom burden. As the number of students per teacher has dropped dramatically, teachers have taught fewer classes per day, rather than teaching smaller classes, as parents would prefer.

So the near-doubling in education spending per student has not largely been consumed by enriching individual teachers, whose salaries have grown only a little faster than inflation, nor by offering students the smaller classes that families have been demanding. Instead, as teachers’ salaries continue to lose ground to salaries in other professions and students continue to sit in large classes, the bulk of the spending increase appears to have been consumed by hiring a whole lot more teachers at only modestly higher salaries, while requiring each of them to teach fewer students per day.

Whose interests does this serve? Perhaps some teachers prefer to work less and get very modest raises rather than work the same amount and get bigger raises. But it doesn’t seem likely that most teachers feel that way, since we constantly hear teachers complain about the growing salary gap between teaching and other professions. Anyone who is well-educated enough to become a teacher is also well-educated enough to enter many other careers that pay better. A new college graduate makes a significant financial sacrifice if he decides to embark upon a teaching career.

The teachers’ unions, by contrast, make out like bandits from this arrangement. First, they gain financially. If they wanted to rake in more money by raising union dues, they would face stiff opposition from their members. On the other hand, by jacking up their total number of members, they can take the same small amount of money out of a larger number of paychecks. Just imagine what the 48-percent growth in the teacher workforce has done for union budgets.

Second, they gain politically. The unions owe their enormous influence on education policy, including their death lock on education policy in the Democratic party, as much to their army of political volunteers as they do to their bulging bank accounts. Every election year, the unions send out the shock troops to canvass, stuff envelopes, hand out literature at polling places, and do all the rest of the thankless drudgery that politics requires. A 48-percent increase in the teacher workforce means a 48-percent larger pool from which those shock troops can be drawn. And even the teachers who don’t become volunteers will at least become voters whose livelihood depends on the public school system.

So the next time you hear the teachers’ unions complain that teachers’ salaries are abysmally low and class sizes are atrociously high, bear in mind that those facts don’t exist in a vacuum. Teachers’ salaries have stagnated and class sizes haven’t significantly shrunk in large part because of policies that convey ever more money and power to the teachers’ unions.

Jay P. Greene is a senior fellow and Greg Forster is a senior research associate at the Manhattan Institute’s Education Research Office.