Study: Rhode Island teachers unions 5th-strongest in the US

A new study will give ammunition to those who say local teachers unions wield significant power in Rhode Island.

The two organizations – the National Education Association Rhode Island and the smaller Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals – are the fifth-strongest teachers unions in the United States based on a range of measures, according to an analysis [pdf] by the Thomas P. Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now, the nonprofit wing of Democrats for Education Reform.

The four states ranked as having stronger teachers unions than Rhode Island were Hawaii, Oregon, Montana and Pennsylvania. Connecticut ranked 17th and Massachusetts ranked 21st.

The authors say the study “represents the most comprehensive analysis of American teacher unions’ strength ever conducted,” and it suggests the Rhode Island unions’ are more involved in politics and have more resources than most of their counterparts elsewhere in the country.

At the same time – and perhaps contrary to popular belief – the study finds “state policies on teacher employment and the scope of bargaining are not completely union-favorable and recent [political] defeats seem to indicate that the unions, while still strong, face a political environment that has become more contentious of late, or at least more divided.”

Robert Walsh, NEARI’s executive director, said in an email the study “seems kind of sloppy,” noting a number of inaccurate details. But Walsh agreed that his union plays an influential role in the education debate and has some success in elections. He also said he wasn’t surprised by the study’s overall findings that Northeast and West Coast states have stronger unions, higher wages and better working conditions for teachers.

The study says 97% of all teachers in Rhode Island belong to a union, one of the highest rates in the country, and the unions’ annual revenue is $552 per teacher – a figure Walsh disputed as too high. He also said that Rhode Island’s high spending – $14,567 per pupil, more than half for salary and benefits – is skewed because it includes the unfunded liability for past pension benefits.

While per-pupil expenditure in Rhode Island from all sources (federal, state and local governments) is eighth-highest in the country, the amount contributed by the state is near the bottom, ranking 45th, though that is changing as a new funding formula gets phased in.

Rhode Island is one of 32 states that require collective bargaining and one of 25 where unions can automatically collect “agency fees” from non-member teachers covered by the same contract as members.

“But,” the study says, “despite its supportive stance toward bargaining in general, state law is fairly neutral about the specifics” – because only three of 21 items are subject to mandatory bargaining: wages, hours, and terms and conditions of employment (including benefits). Teacher strikes are also illegal.

Nor do all state policies mirror traditional union positions. While charter schools are restricted, student achievement is “the preponderant criterion in teacher evaluations, and teachers are eligible for dismissal after multiple unsatisfactory ratings.” However, Rhode Island teachers are dismissed for poor performance “at a lower rate than in almost every other state,” nor does the state support for pay for performance.

Education Week’s Stephen Sawchuk summarized the study’s overall findings as complicated.

“In general, unions in mandatory-bargaining states appear to be somewhat stronger than those in states where it is prohibited,” he wrote. “But for the most part, it unearthed no cut-and-dried patterns among the states, a finding that underscores the complex mix of factors that affect unions’ ability to shape policy and affect politics.”

Here’s the summary chart for Rhode Island:

​(map: Fordham Institute/Education Reform Now)

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