How to Challenge Teachers Unions’ Control Over Local Elections
Published June 20, 2023
Teachers' unions in the United States hold significant influence over school board elections, winning 70 percent of races when they make endorsements. Despite the Supreme Court’s Janus decision in 2018, union-backed candidates have continued to prevail. However, a strategy out of Florida provides a possible avenue for education reformers to challenge teachers’ unions at the ballot box.
- Read “Still the Ones to Beat: Teachers’ Unions and School Board Elections,” by Michael Hartney via Manhattan Institute. Available here.
- Watch or listen to “Hoover Book Club: How Policies Make Interest Groups: Governments, Unions, And American Education,” with Michael Hartney and Terry Moe. Available here.
- Watch “How Teachers’ Unions Became Political” on PolicyEd. Available here.
Teachers’ unions have a major impact on local school board elections in the United States. They win seven out of every ten races when they make an endorsement, and union support makes the difference for both incumbents and challengers.
Contrary to some expectations, the Supreme Court's 2018 Janus decision failed to reduce union power and influence in local school politics. A full decade after the court prohibited unions from charging fees to non-union teachers, union-backed candidates remain the ones to beat.
As part of different research projects over a period of several years, I collected data on nearly 5,000 union endorsements in school board elections. These endorsements were gathered for three of the nation’s four largest states: California, Florida, and New York.
Union win rates were 64 percent in Florida, 71 percent in California, and 80 percent in New York.
On the whole, union electioneering is successful in liberal, moderate, and conservative districts.
According to my data, union-backed candidates never won less than 60% of their elections, even in the most GOP-leaning districts.
The consequences of union power in local school board elections are significant. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, schools remained closed for in-person learning much longer in communities where unions were more active and influential in local board elections. And just as many experts predicted, students suffered more learning loss in these same communities.
For parents’ rights groups, education reformers, and school-choice advocates wishing to counteract union dominance in local school politics, there are important lessons to be learned. These groups cannot simply rely on favorable partisan tides in national politics or narrow legal decisions that weaken unions to advance their cause. After all, school board elections are fought and won in the trenches at the local level.
But my research did uncover one exception to union dominance in school board elections. That exception was something of a natural experiment that took place in Florida’s 2022 primary contests (the de-facto general election for school board races with just two candidates). Although Florida’s school board elections are nonpartisan, something unprecedented happened: Governor Ron DeSantis and the Republican Party of Florida put school board elections on their agenda.
During the summer leading up to the August primary election, Governor DeSantis unveiled a 10-point education agenda and asked local school board candidates to pledge their support. After candidates decided whether to align with the governor’s conservative education agenda, DeSantis chose 30 candidates and offered them his official endorsement and financial support. In certain hotly contested races, DeSantis even campaigned locally on behalf of the candidates.
The move was unprecedented. “This is new, particularly for Republicans,” DeSantis told the News Service of Florida. “Because ... [traditionally] unions would back candidates and that would be it.”
DeSantis’s move worked on a scale unlike anything seen before. In the 19 elections where one of the governor’s candidates went head-to-head with a teachers-union-backed opponent, the unions won just four races (and advanced to a general-election runoff in just three).
In previous elections where voters did not have the same cues to follow, teachers’ unions won over 70% of the time when they made an endorsement. In contrast, Florida’s teachers’ unions only won 20% of the elections where DeSantis offered voters a conservative alternative in 2022.
The key advantage of the DeSantis strategy is that it requires no electoral reforms. Moreover, the DeSantis approach is available to both Democratic and Republican governors who believe that their education agendas are sufficiently popular with voters to provide coattails to local school board candidates who buy in.
Although some election law scholars have made a good case for adopting electoral reforms that would allow political executives (like mayors or governors) to make on-ballot endorsements, DeSantis proved that, even absent these formal legal changes, a recognizable political figure with a clearly articulated education policy agenda can make races more competitive by endorsing aligned school board candidates and campaigning on their behalf.
Teachers’ unions retain many advantages that will continue to allow them to be key players in local school politics. While that dynamic is unlikely to change anytime soon, there appears to be a reasonable blueprint for advocates of more balance in local school politics on which to build.