Data: Fewer Than Half of US Teachers Are Union Members

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The number of teachers across the United States who are represented by a union in both public and private schools is dropping. The number has now fallen below 50% for the first time in decades, according to data analyzed via Mike Antonucci’s Education Intelligence Agency.

According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, 49% of teachers in the US, or 2.5 million, were covered by unions in 2014.  The statistic shows a drop from 50% in 2013 and 53% 10 years prior.  In 1984, 64% of teachers were under union coverage.  Teachers who are employed in a unionized district can receive some of the benefits without joining.

Public and private schools across the country employed an estimated 5.2 million teachers last year.  An additional 1.3 million are employed at the college level, which holds a much lower rate of union representation, just 23%.

The downtrend in union coverage is happening at the same time as three other important trends in education.  Baby boomer teachers are beginning to retire – the teachers who hold higher rates of union membership.  School districts are starting to hire more teachers as the effects of the recession begin to wear off, and more students are attending charter schools, which tend to hire non-unionized teachers.

Although the ultimate effects of the downtrend in unionization remain unclear, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said that students who attend schools with the highest numbers of unionized teachers, “do better, because collective voice is the means educators have to secure the tools and conditions they need to help students succeed.”

Data shows that students in states with more unionized teachers have higher test scores and graduation rates.

Jim Testerman, senior director of the National Education Association’s Center for Organizing, believes the union is on its way to the first uptick in membership in the past four years.  Of the 52 affiliates of the union, 35 are expected to see improvement over last year, either through losing less members, or gaining new ones.  The union, the largest in the nation, currently has around 3 million members, writes Greg Toppo for USA Today.

The NEA lost over 200,000 members last year.

“We do know that some states are starting to invest in education again,” Testerman said. “A lot of folks didn’t hire during the recession.”

While research from the NEA does not support the theory that new teachers are expecting to spend fewer years in the classroom than older generation teachers, it does suggest that the older generation are becoming frustrated from test-based reforms and are then either retiring early or changing jobs.  “They are leaving the profession,” Testerman said.