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Students vs. Salaries


Published May 20, 2024

Teachers’ unions in the United States are one of the most powerful political forces in the country. Union-backed candidates win 7 out of every 10 school board seats and those candidates tend to prioritize union members and their interests rather than student achievement. To ensure that students come first, it is essential to counterbalance union influence through increased candidate and union transparency, as well as alternative endorsements from parent groups and political figures.

Check out More from Michael Hartney:

  • Read "Student-Centered: How to Fine-Tune our Schools" from Michael T. Hartney here.
  • Watch "How Teachers Unions Became Political" with Michael T. Hartney here
  • Read "Correct the Record" from Michael T. Hartney and Vladimir Kogan here.  

The opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Hoover Institution or Stanford University. © 2024 by the Board of Trustees of Leland Stanford Junior University.

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School boards are one of the most influential actors in American education today.  They help set curricula, evaluate teachers, and oversee hundreds of billions of dollars in education spending.  But teachers’ unions often wield even greater power because they influence who gets elected to school boards in the first place. 


Unfortunately, unions too often prioritize their own members’ occupational interests, rather than use their influence to benefit students, often at the expense of student outcomes.


Union-backed candidates win roughly 7 out of every 10 board elections. Moreover, while teachers’ unions are more likely to endorse incumbents who raise teacher salaries, unions do not reward board members who raise student achievement.


What’s more, unions were less likely to endorse candidates who returned students to in-person learning during the 2020-21 school year, favoring candidates who relied on virtual learning instead, resulting in significant, and potentially permanent, academic setbacks for students.


Collective bargaining agreements and teacher salary increases often increase costs to schools with no direct link to student success. Rigid contract rules often mean that schools with the most disadvantaged students end up with the least effective teachers. 


Students and parents deserve meaningful change. When more information and greater transparency on candidates and unions are available to voters; when parent groups and well-known political figures provide their own endorsements as a counterweight to union-backed candidates, only then is that meaningful change possible.