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More studies show unions and politics driving school closures

Last month, I shared a study by Corey DeAngelis and Christos Makridis that found school reopening decisions are being driven more by teachers’ union influence than actual safety concerns. Additional recent studies have drawn similar conclusions.

In an October education working paper, political scientists Michael Hartney and Leslie Finger analyzed national data and found evidence that “politics, far more than science, shaped school district decision-making,” and that “mass partisanship and teacher union strength best explain how school boards approached reopening.”

Both the percentage of the vote earned by Donald Trump in the 2016 general election in school district’s parent county along with the size of a school district (a proxy of teacher union strength) are the two most consistent and powerful predictors of a district’s choice in reopening strategy.

Even after controlling for district urbanicity, partisanship, and the COVID case rate in a district, we find that larger districts where unions are more likely to be powerful in politics and collective bargaining are far less likely to hold in-person classes and far more likely to remain remote at the start of the fall school year.

The finding that districts with stronger unions are less likely to re-open, even after accounting for the intensity of the pandemic itself, is entirely consistent with the strong public positions taken by the nation’s two largest teachers unions and their affiliates in opposing districts’ efforts to push them back into the classroom at the start of the fall school year.

Hartney and Finger also re-estimated districts’ likelihood to close schools by looking at whether they collectively bargain with their local teachers union (or not).

Using this more finely grained measure of teacher union strength in a district, we are able to confirm that union power is associated with an increased likelihood of remote learning. … [D]istricts with collective bargaining are 40 percent likely to remain in remote learning whereas non-CB [collective bargaining] districts are less than 15 percent likely to reopen in a fully remote system.

In a November policy brief, Dr. Will Flanders at the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty analyzed more than 400 Wisconsin school districts and found that infection rates did not “play a significant role in determining whether or not to reopen a school,” and that “instead it is partisanship and union presence that are the main drivers of the decision to reopen or not.” When comparing school districts that re-opened for in-person instruction with districts that chose a distance learning model, Flanders found no significant difference in the rate of coronavirus infections.

Union presence predicts a school going virtual. Districts with a teachers union were more likely to go virtual than districts without a teachers union.

Political ideology predicts a school going virtual. Districts with a higher percentage of votes for President Trump in 2016 and 2020 were more likely to open, while those with a higher percentage for Hillary Clinton were more likely to remain shuttered.

COVID-19 cases in an area were unpredictive. The per-capita rate of COVID-19 cases in an area was not significantly predictive of whether a school district would reopen or not.

Districts with more low-income children are more likely to go virtual. As the percentage of students in a district who are low income increases, so does the likelihood that the district will have chosen virtual education for the fall. [Despite disadvantaged students being more likely to have difficulty accessing the internet and devices needed to engage in remote learning.]

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