Research shows

Weaker union hurts test scores in Wisconsin

The weakening of teachers’ unions in Wisconsin led to a drop in math and science test scores in the state’s already struggling schools, according to new research published by the Social Science Research Network.

Researcher E. Jason Baron from the Department of Economics at Florida State University used results from state standardized tests to measure the impact on student achievement from the passage of Wisconsin’s Act 10, which became law in 2011. Act 10 severely curtailed collective bargaining, reduced pension benefits and required union recertification elections each year. The law led to big cuts in teacher pay, particularly for veteran teachers, and reductions in health insurance and retirement benefits for teachers. 

Act 10 did not take effect statewide immediately; teachers in a handful of districts were allowed to maintain their union rights and benefits until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That disparity enabled Baron to compare the impact on student achievement of a weaker union with a control group.

His analysis found that where Act 10 was implemented immediately, scores on the Wisconsin standardized science and math tests dropped in the first year. The drop in scores was so great that it was comparable to the impact of increasing class size by eight students. Moreover, Baron found that this reduction was concentrated in the bottom 40 percent of schools.

Baron speculates that student achievement dropped in low-performing districts because Act 10 removed incentives for high-quality teachers to remain in low-performing schools. The law triggered a spike in teacher retirements, which created vacancies, and then high-performing schools filled many of those vacancies by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools.

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