Class Size Reduction and the Chicago Teacher Strike

Dylan Matthews of Wonkbook has written an able summary of the various disagreements that have sparked the Chicago teachers’ strike. The following passage was of particular interest to me:

Teachers also want laid off teachers to be able to be automatically “recalled” to positions if they open up. Emanuel would allow these teachers to apply to new openings, but given his desire to focus layoffs on worst-performing teachers, does not want automatic recalls. Finally, the teachers’ union is demanding smaller class sizes (both to improve working conditions and to improve student learning and life outcomes) and air conditioning for classrooms that don’t currently have it.

I assume that Dylan is only referring to the teachers’ union’s stated reasons for demanding smaller class sizes, as there is considerable scholarly disagreement regarding the benefits of class size reductions when balanced against other considerations, e.g., the importance of maintaining a high level of average teacher quality. The following is drawn from a recent literature review on the impact of class size reduction by Matthew Chingos and Grover Whitehurst:

Class-size reduction has been shown to work for some students in some grades in some states and countries, but its impact has been found to be mixed or not discernable in other settings and circumstances that seem similar.  It is very expensive.  The costs and benefits of class-size mandates need to be carefully weighed against all of the alternatives when difficult decisions must be made.

Back in 2011, Chingos wrote a paper for the Center for American Progress that described class size reduction as “the most expensive school reform,” which argued that it is important to weigh any benefits from class size reduction against the potential benefits of alternative uses for te money spent:

Consider this example: A school that pays teachers $50,000 per year (roughly the national average) would save $833 per student in teacher salary costs alone by increasing class size from 15 to 20.30 The true savings, including facilities costs and teacher benefits, would be significantly larger. These resources could be used for other purposes. If all of the savings were used to raise teacher salaries, for example, the average teacher salary in this example would increase by $17,000 to $67,000.

School finances are—and always will be—finite, so the right way to think about every dollar spent is not “will it have any positive effect?” but “is this the best possible way to spend this dollar?” A hugely expensive policy has to produce very impressive results in order for it to be preferable to all of the other potential uses for those resources. Class-size reduction almost always fails this test because it is too expensive to justify even benefits as large as those suggested by the Tennessee STAR study.

Because Dylan limits himself to referring to the teachers’ union’s stated reasons, he leaves out another possibility: small class sizes will mean more teachers, and more teachers mean more members, and more dues, for the teachers’ union. Terry Moe, author of Special Interest, has shed light on this dynamic:

Like members of Congress, union leaders are elected to their organizational roles, and in those roles—but not in the rest of their lives—they have strong incentives to behave in very distinctive ways. Above all else, they must be centrally concerned with pleasing their members—their constituents—who are employees of the public school system, and who fully expect their unions to protect their jobs, to get them higher wages and better benefits, to push for teacher-friendly work rules, to oppose threatening reforms, and in general, to fight for their basic job-related interests. Union leaders will be special-interest advocates for their members.

As human beings, union leaders may care very deeply about children and want the best for them. They may also be very concerned about the quality of education and be convinced that significant improvement in the public schools is called for. More generally, they may be very good, public-spirited people. But these qualities are not of the essence when it comes to what they do in their jobs. In that role, they have strong incentives to be special-interest advocates. And that is how they will behave.

In the private sector, the unions are transparent about their special-interest role. What’s to hide? The United Auto Workers pushes hard to secure good wages and benefits for employees on the auto assembly lines, and it doesn’t pretend to be concerned, first and foremost, with the welfare of the millions of consumers who buy cars. The teachers’ unions, however, are in the public sector, and there the institutional incentives are very different—for they need to depend heavily on the political process, and thus on gaining democratic support for what they do and want. To behave wisely in this setting, they have incentives to convince the voting public that they are not self-interested but in fact fundamentally concerned about children and quality education—and that whatever they do to promote their own interests is actually good for children and schools too.

I should stress that it is possible that the Chicago teachers’ union is pursuing class size reduction primarily on the grounds of improving student learning and life outcomes (which, I should stress, is not an argument Dylan is making). My sense, however, is that the push for class size reduction is more about improving work conditions, a point that Dylan raises explicitly, and improving the bargaining position of the teachers’ union in the future by increasing its political heft. 

Reihan Salam — Reihan Salam is executive editor of National Review and a National Review Institute policy fellow.

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