Kids do fine when charter school forms labor union, study shows

Maggie Thurber
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Posted: Jan 29, 2015 9:30 AM
Kids do fine when charter school forms labor union, study shows

By Maggie Thurber | For Ohio Watchdog

Labor economist Aaron Sojourner says his study of the effects of unionization on charter school performance is the best empirical evidence available.

More than 40 Ohio charter schools have a labor union, but what’s the impact on the performance of kids?

A recent study has the answer: none.

Well, except for the year in which the school switches to a union, Aaron Sojourner, a co-author of the report, said.

“Unionization is disruptive,” he said. “When there is a hint it is happening, parents get upset, teachers aren’t focused on student learning but on union strategy, and management is consulting with attorneys and trying to follow various laws. There is a shift away from the student learning and toward the adult decision-making.”

The good news, Sojourner said, is that once the unionization process is over, “things go back to normal and performance returns.”

Sojourner is a labor economist at the University of Minnesota who said he was spurred to conduct the study that goes into uncharted waters. With co-author Cassandra Hart, a researcher at the University of California-Davis who  focuses on state and national education policies, Sojourner went looking for real data parents and policy makers could use.

“It was a very hard challenge to come up with credible research that shows real causal effects rather than correlation,” he said. “It’s easy to compare unionized charter schools in general to non-unionized ones, but if one is in Mississippi and one is in Ohio, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison.”

Sojourner said he wanted to be able to compare performance within the same school and same grades.

“If the unionization status of the teachers changed, how did the performance of the students change?” he asked.

He and Hart looked at charter schools in California.

“Using the single state of California helped eliminate all kinds of extra variables that impact student achievement,” Sojourner said, because it has the most charter schools in the nation. “Plus there were a lot of schools that went from non-union to union, as well as a lot of achievement data over an extended period of time.”

Their study, which they completed last year, shows very little impact on student achievement when charter schools are unionized, though there was a temporary dip in the year of the initial unionization process.

“Unionization does not lead to a precipitous decline in student achievement,” Sojourner said. “It’s when everyone gets caught up in the process that student achievement suffers. The study shows that, in the end, everything is going to be OK.”

The study examined several years before unionization and then several years post-unionization and fund very little difference in student performance over time.

But do the findings from California apply to states like Ohio, where efforts to unionize charter schools are on the rise?

“I don’t have any theory that would tell me why it would be different,” Sojourner said.

This study is “the best evidence available anywhere, so it’s very likely the outcome is the same,” he said. “The schools, children, teachers and administrators are probably not radically different in Ohio. If you care about finding the effect of the process on student achievement, this is the best evidence out there.”

Sojourner said they even looked at the effect of unionization on different types of students and on such demographic factors as parental educational levels.

“There was no effect,” he said, “or rather, a non-result on achievement.”

The study did not examine the budgetary impact of unionization on schools, primarily because charter school unions have a limited impact on the state’s allocation of expenditures for the charter schools.

But since charters are specifically designed to provide more flexibility in areas of curriculum, scheduling and environment, did unionization have an impact on that flexibility?

“We did not look at that aspect,” Sojourner explained, “but it would be really interesting to do so. I wish we had more evidence to share on that aspect.”

Sojourner did have some advice for parents who learn that teachers at their child’s charter school want to form a union:  Don’t panic.

“Students in union charter schools achieve the same as those in non-union charter schools,” he said. “Everyone should just chill out and let the process work. Then even that temporary dip will probably go away.”