The Coulson Effect on Education
An education free market stalwart leaves us way too soon.
On February 7th, Andrew Coulson tragically passed away at age 48 from brain cancer. As Senior Fellow in Education Policy at the Cato Institute, he led the charge for free market reforms in education. An unapologetic capitalist, he believed that the market would inevitably lead to better educational outcomes for all kids. And it was really more than a belief. When the former computer engineer saw a problem, he got busy tinkering under the hood to see what the problem was and how best to fix it.
Coulson was a kind, brilliant man whose sense of humor was always at the ready. His colleagues, Jason Bedrick and Neal McCluskey, found him to be “almost impossibly sunny.” Even those coming from a very different political/education angle appreciated and respected him. Reformer Doug Tuthill, a one-time union leader and self-described liberal Democrat, said of him, “Andrew loved facts and logic. He had an engineer’s mind and was relentlessly methodical in laying out his arguments. I appreciated his commitment to civility and rationality in private and public discourse, and was always influenced, if not persuaded, by his reasoning and facts.”
Before I met Coulson in 2010, we had a brief email relationship, and in 2009 he sent me a copy of “The Effects of Teachers Unions on American Education,” a paper he wrote for the Cato Journal. While the teachers unions are quick to impress upon the world how much they do for teachers, they never get around to telling you specifics. Oh sure, they go on about salary and benefits, but are their claims true? Coulson, using piles of data, cut through union happy talk and left us with a very different view.
One of the claims of the teachers unions is that collective bargaining is the life-blood of the union movement, but Coulson handily debunks that. While collective bargaining has some effect on teacher salaries, it is not nearly as great as is commonly assumed.
Coulson cites Stanford economist Carolyn Hoxby who suggests that the real union wage premium is somewhere between zero and 10 percent. Looking at rural Pennsylvania districts, economist Robert Lemke found the public school union wage premium at 7.6 percent. Cornell’s Michael Lovenheim looked at three Midwestern states and concluded that “unions have no effect on teacher pay.” Coulson clarifies that salary hikes have all undeniably occurred, but “they have occurred in both unionized and nonunionized public school districts.”
So if salary hikes (and other collective bargaining goodies) haven’t done much for union members, what have the unions accomplished for their teachers? Coulson maintained it protects them from having to compete in the educational marketplace.
Another great Coulson contribution came in the one (that I am aware of) interchange between Andrew and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, and it didn’t work out too well for the union leader. In 2011, she wrote an insufferable op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in which she claims that “Markets Aren’t the Education Solution.” Coulson responded with “Dear Ms. Weingarten: I’ll Show You Mine if You’ll Show Me Yours,” in which he wrote he’d “prefer to reach policy conclusions based on empirical research.” As Coulson pointed out, Weingarten came to her conclusion “based on the testimony of a few foreign teachers’ union leaders and government officials who… run official government education monopolies.” Coulson produced a most interesting chart that clearly shows how many studies favor education markets over state school monopolies, and vice-versa, in each of six outcome areas.
Not surprisingly, Weingarten didn’t (because she couldn’t) deliver a rejoinder.
Coulson nails the subject: “The NEA and AFT spend large sums on political lobbying so that public school districts maintain their monopoly control of more than half a trillion dollars in annual U.S. k-12 education spending. And since both the U.S. and international research indicate that achievement and efficiency are generally higher in private sector—and particularly competitive market—education systems, the public school monopoly imposes an enormous cost on American children and taxpayers.”
To further bring Coulson’s thesis to light, one only needs to look at recent events. A small sampling:
- In Los Angeles, the teachers union just asked for – and got – a got a 30 percent dues increase from its members. It’s rallying cry? “We need the money to battle foes of traditional public education.”
- In Jefferson County, Colorado, a “parent” group led the charge to get rid of a school board majority “with an extreme anti-public education agenda.” In reality, it wasn’t parent-led, it was union-led. The National Education Association and its state and local affiliates fully subsidized an ugly and unfortunately successful campaign to unseat the NEA-dubbed “right-wing school board.
- In New York City, the unions are on an eternal mission to cripple Eva Moskowitz’s highly successful (non-unionized) charter franchise.
Coulson’s research led him to understand that we are “paying dearly for the union label, but mainly due to union lobbying to preserve the government school monopoly rather than to collective bargaining.” The good news is that because of Andrew Coulson and other school choice warriors, that monopoly is unraveling, albeit very slowly.
One final note: Losing Coulson was blow for those of us who are desperately trying to minimize the damage done by the teachers unions and the government education monopoly. But there was a second death of note last week. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia passed away this past Saturday. The Friedrichs decision, which presumably would have favored the plaintiffs 5-4, is now on hold. In all likelihood, a vote on the case, which could kill mandatory union dues, hasn’t yet been taken and the result of the remaining Justices’ vote will probably be 4-4, leaving the current Abood decision in place. The plaintiffs’ best hope is that the case gets held until a new SCOTUS Justice is appointed – and that the appointee is not named by either the current president, Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.
In any event, we lost two great freedom fighters last week. Their life’s work must continue; it’s up to all of us to dig in and ensure that their efforts have not been in vain.
Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.