Ohio 12th in US for strongest teacher unions

Ohio has the nation’s 12th-strongest teacher unions, which have “highly permissive” bargaining rights and are involved politically even though the public doesn’t consider them as strong as they are, according to a report from an education policy think tank.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute released rankings last week of what it said were the most powerful teacher’s unions in the country. It considered factors including resources, membership and state policies that affect unions. Bargaining rights and resources were among the most significant factors in the rankings, according to the institute.

The Ohio Education Association said rankings by the Fordham Institute “can never be considered objective or trustworthy.”

“Their long-term agenda is to bust up the public schools as they exist, privatize them into charter schools and publicly funded private schools via vouchers,” Michele Prater, an OEA spokesperson, wrote in an email.

“At OEA, students are at the heart of our agenda for education reform, and our teachers are deeply committed to the success of every child. One of our biggest challenges in Ohio is to hold all of us accountable for student success — parents, students, teachers and elected officials.”

Officials from the Fordham Institute warned that strong teacher unions do not always operate in the best interests of school districts and students.

“For better or worse, teacher unions look out for teacher interests,” Chester E. Finn, Jr., Fordham’s president, said in a release announcing the results. “This study sheds light on how exactly they do this, by measuring their strength, state by state, more comprehensively than any other analysis to date. It illuminates their power to hinder — or promote — education reform.”

Ohio ranked one spot ahead of West Virginia and one spot behind Vermont. The institute tagged Hawaii as the nation’s strongest state for teacher unions, while Arizona ranked No. 51 (the list includes the District of Columbia).

Terry Ryan, Fordham’s Dayton-based vice president for Ohio programs and policy, said the Ohio unions are particularly strong in membership and resources, which have helped them have influence with lawmakers. However, Ohio’s weakest ranking among the categories considered was in “perceived influence,” in which the state ranked No. 35 nationally.

“There’s no doubt teacher unions have a strong influence in (Ohio) policy decisions, both by district and throughout the state,” Ryan said. “Some of those decisions, I would argue, might benefit the adults and not necessarily the kids or the financial health of the district.”

Ryan said Ohio might have ranked higher on the national list if not for the proliferation of the charter schools in the state, which the unions have generally opposed. It’s one of the few areas that worked against Ohio, he said.

“They have been strongly opposed to things like charter schools and vouchers, and they fought those policies every step of the way,” Ryan said. “One could say that Ohio is 12th and not (closer to No. 1) despite that opposition and the resources to fight that fight because Ohio has lots of charter schools and lots of voucher programs.”

In its report, Fordham noted that 91.5 percent of teachers in Ohio are union members, which was the 15th-highest participation rate in the country. Prater, of the OEA, said the group agreed with the Fordham Institute’s assessment that Ohio’s latest legislative session actions mostly did not match teacher union goals. But she cited few other agreements with the research.

She said it’s important for teachers and districts to work together on financial issues. Several district teacher union leaders in the region deferred to Prater and the OEA for comment on the report.

“In Ohio, elected state officials and legislators have largely shifted support of public schools — and a state budget priorities problem — back to local school districts who are struggling to deal with $2.9 billion in cuts in state support for local school districts,” she wrote.

The Fordham Institute’s report said that Ohio’s teacher unions have been more active in politics than such groups in many other states, which helps them to a relatively high ranking.

“Ohio’s teacher unions are fairly influential compared with those in all states, and are the most influential among the bargaining-permitted states,” the Fordham Institute wrote in its report. “They do not rate particularly low in any of the five areas examined here; however, the state is not a particularly friendly place for organized labor in general.”

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