Public-sector collective bargaining—whereby governments negotiate with employee unions over compensation and management practices—has enabled teachers unions to put a stranglehold on Ohio school districts. Research has clearly established that unions across the U.S. have a profound influence on K–12 education, in large part because of their outsized influence on politics at all levels of government. That’s no different here, as state collective-bargaining law has made teachers unions particularly influential in Ohio
Ohio was late to the game in granting collective-bargaining rights to public-sector employees, but it eventually enacted the “the strongest public-sector employee statute in the nation” The Ohio Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act of 1983 made it easy to establish a union representative for a bargaining unit (e.g., only 50 percent of district employees had to vote affirmatively for the state to certify the representative); required school districts to bargain with that union representative using mutually agreed procedures (which the state enforced with a powerful new government agency); prescribed mediation procedures that essentially split the difference between union and district preferences during negotiations; and provided certain public employees (notably teachers) the right to strike if mediation failed—a source of significant bargaining power for unions. So, although the law merely permitted collective bargaining, these features led teachers in the vast majority of Ohio districts to establish union representation and negotiate collective-bargaining agreements by 1990.
Today, nearly all Ohio school districts have collective-bargaining agreements on file with the State Employee Relations Board. These agreements typically last three years and can deal with virtually all aspects of school district management. Most prominently, they establish rigid pay schedules that set teacher salaries according to seniority and degrees, and they prescribe, in detail, staff benefits, such as health insurance and leave time. They also set teachers’ work conditions, such as maximum class size, how their performance will be evaluated, how much time they have each day to prepare lessons or eat lunch, and so on. What has gotten perhaps the most attention is how thoroughly they prescribe personnel management practices, such as strict procedures that make it almost impossible to fire incompetent teachers or to assign effective teachers to schools and students that need them the most. I encourage anyone to look over their local district’s teacher collective-bargaining agreement (available here, by downloading the version for bargaining unit “T”) to get a sense for just how prescriptive these contracts are and how little management discretion they allow school leaders.
In spite of what a “balanced” accounting of political debates might have you believe, rigorous research consistently finds that the management constraints that teachers unions impose via collective bargaining have a negative impact on student outcomes. For example, student achievement declines when collective-bargaining agreements become more restrictive, and states’ adoption of collective-bargaining laws led to declines in cognitive skills and earnings. Most relevant, Yale Professor Barbara Biasi's analysis of Wisconsin’s Act 10—which rolled back some collective-bargaining rights, including disallowing the establishment of rigid pay schedules through collective-bargaining agreements—indicates that districts with newfound flexibility were able to increase pay and recruit more effective teachers. Importantly, these changes led to significant increases in student achievement.
Wisconsin’s collective-bargaining reform was disruptive in initial years, as many teachers retired early to secure retirement benefits, districts competed over a limited supply of effective teachers, and ineffective teachers left the profession. But economist E. Jason Baron, who documented the initial negative impacts, later completed a follow-up study in which he found that four years after its implementation, Act 10 eventually led to a 20 percent increase in the number of teaching degrees awarded by selective schools (defined by their acceptance rates and students’ ACT scores) and improved student achievement by that same magnitude. His research suggests that, by enabling districts to sharply increase the wages of promising entry-level teachers, more talented individuals went into teaching, and in turn, student achievement increased significantly across the state.
My 2021 study with Jason Cook (a professor at the University of Utah) and Corbin Miller (an economist at the U.S. Department of the Treasury) found that Ohio districts also benefited when union influence was limited. Using a rigorous, plausibly causal research design, we found that when collective bargaining enabled Ohio teachers unions to meddle in districts’ allocation of funds (because new revenue arrived at the same time collective bargaining was taking place), teacher pay increased but student achievement did not. When unions were less able to meddle (again, because of the timing of revenue increases relative to collective bargaining), teacher pay did not increase but student achievement did. The take-home point of our study is this: Collective bargaining led districts to spend money in ways that yielded no discernable benefits in terms of academic outcomes, and it may have imposed financial obligations that required them to obtain yet more revenue from local taxpayers.
What collective-bargaining reform should entail
The rigorous studies on Wisconsin’s Act 10 suggest that, at minimum, Ohio should disallow collective bargaining over compensation schemes. The research convincingly shows that providing districts the authority to negotiate pay with individual teachers can yield substantial academic benefits while strengthening the teaching profession. Specifically, Wisconsin’s Act 10 limited collective-bargaining negotiations to inflation adjustments to base wages; other changes to compensation were up to the districts. In response, about half of districts decided to eliminate rigid salary schedules that compensated teachers based on credentials and seniority. Districts that took advantage of this flexibility primarily adopted performance pay policies based on teacher evaluation ratings (not value-added test scores) and used bonuses to attract promising teachers in hard-to-staff positions. In other words, districts were able to direct resources toward individuals who best met their needs, as opposed to paying all district teachers the same rate regardless of their effectiveness or district needs.
My study links collective bargaining over teacher salaries to lower student achievement in Ohio, but it also suggests that any reduction in union influence over the allocation of district resources could improve student outcomes. For example, limiting Ohio teachers’ right to strike would reduce their bargaining power. Some of Wisconsin’s other reforms, such as disallowing dues deductions from employee paychecks and requiring unions to hold regular certification elections, could also serve this function. It is not clear, however, what impact these attempts to limit union power would ultimately have. Thus, although my study suggests any reduction in union bargaining power would provide districts with flexibility that might enable them to better meet kids’ needs, the most conclusive evidence points to the value of providing districts with discretion in determining teacher compensation.
Is there a path toward collective-bargaining reform in Ohio?
Ohio came close to reforming collective bargaining much like Wisconsin did. Shortly after Governor Scott Walker led the charge in Wisconsin, Governor John Kasich and the Ohio General Assembly enacted reforms to public-sector collective bargaining in 2011. Among other things, the Ohio law prohibited strikes by government workers, disallowed collective bargaining over healthcare and pensions, required performance-based teacher pay, eliminated agency fees, and lowered the vote threshold that public employees needed to reach to decertify their union. But, unlike Wisconsin, public-sector unions in Ohio prevailed when they secured a repeal of the law via a ballot initiative that same year. Ultimately, support for the repeal was bipartisan, which led to significant political moderation among Ohio lawmakers in subsequent years.
Given this humbling defeat, why should Ohio consider collective-bargaining reform now? First, low pay and teacher shortages have become policy concerns of both Democrats and Republicans. As the research above reveals, Wisconsin’s reforms to collective bargaining led to significant increases in pay and increased the recruitment of talented individuals to the profession. Second, pandemic-related learning loss is a very real threat to Ohioans’ economic well-being and should be a policy concern near the top of policymakers’ agenda. The research cited above clearly establishes that collective-bargaining reforms can lead to substantial increases in student achievement. Third, Ohio’s 2011 law affected all public employees (Wisconsin’s reforms focused primarily on teachers, as opposed to police and firefighters) and sought to impose cuts to compensation and benefits. The political feasibility of collective-bargaining reforms would be greatly enhanced if they focused primarily on education and if they were paired with Ohio’s considerable increases in school funding.
I want to emphasize that teachers are not the problem. Research leaves no doubt that they are by far the most important in-school educational input. Sadly, the state of the teaching profession has reached its lowest level in fifty years, as job satisfaction is low and the talented people we need in the classroom are less drawn to the profession. Ohio’s collective-bargaining law likely contributes to these problems, and reforming it could help solve them. Effective teachers are worth way more than they are paid right now, but school district leaders are unable to raise the pay of talented and hardworking teachers in a way that is commensurate with their contributions to student learning. That’s hardly a recipe for high morale and increased student achievement.
Stéphane Lavertu is a Senior Research Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Professor at The Ohio State University’s John Glenn College of Public Affairs. The opinions and recommendations presented in this editorial are those of the author and do not necessarily represent policy positions or views of the John Glenn College of Public Affairs or The Ohio State University.
 There is one fairly convincing 2020 study by Eric Brunner, Joshua Hyman, and Andrew Ju that finds that districts in states with stronger unions were more likely to increase school funding and teacher salaries, and that this higher funding corresponded to higher student achievement. However, the study cannot speak to whether achievement gains per dollar would have been greater in the absence of collective bargaining.
 The analysis also reveals that Ohio’s collective-bargaining agreements have become lengthier over time, from an average of 17,000 words in 1999 to over 24,000 words in 2019. Research indicates that the length of agreements is a decent proxy for how much they restrict district management.