As many of you know, Wisconsin has become the center of a political firestorm that has received national (and international) attention. While no article we could do would ever give true justice to everything that’s been going on in the state this February, we’ll do our best to give you the Cliff Notes version in today’s article.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduced a budget repair bill earlier this month to address a budget shortfall of $137 million this year and 3.6 billion by 2013. Amongst other reforms, the Republican Governor included cutting benefits for union workers and forcing them to put more money into their retirement plans. Also, the bill strips unions of collective bargaining over everything except wages in relation to the Consumer Price Index.

While the bill affects more than just teachers, one of the most vocal mouthpieces of dissent to the bill as it currently stands had been the Wisconsin Education Association Council, or WEAC. They equate Walker’s bill to union busting, and argue that unions create a better, safer, and more effective working environment for teachers and their students. So is this claim true? We’re here to investigate.

One of the more common pieces of information is that Wisconsin (a state with collective bargaining rights in education) ranks second in SAT scoring, while five states that don’t have support such collective bargaining for teachers – South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, and Virginia – all finished very low (50th, 49th, 48th, 47th, and 44th, respectively). This argument is based on statistics taken from a seemingly reputable site – The National Center For Educational Statistics. However, a closer analysis of the data reveals its flaws.

The statistic doesn’t take into consideration that the vast majority of Wisconsin high school graduates don’t take the SAT. Looking further on the NCES chart, you’ll see that only 5% of students in WI do. This is because the ACT is a much more popular standardized test for most Midwestern colleges, and thus most college-bound students choose to take that test instead. The students who take the SAT are primarily looking to get into East Coast (read: Ivy League) schools, so it’s no surprise their scores will be higher than the national average. On top of that, states that have teachers unions tend to be more affluent and wealthy than those that don’t. It’s not a hard comparison to make that the more money you have to spend on education, the better your system will be. So is it really the unions that create effective education, or is it simply the state’s financial situation?

The simple answer is no – to throw the argument out with the data would be throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Angus Johnston of StudentActivism.net makes a great case as to why this is so. First of all, when corrected for participation, the data still supports the fact that Wisconsin consistently outranks states that don’t support teacher’s unions or collective bargaining. Second, Johnston provides alternate mechanisms for weighing educational effectiveness. Finally, Johnston points out that the Harvard Educational Review provided a statistical analysis on SAT and ACT scores which attempted to control for factors like race, parental income and parental education. In their conclusion, they found that “Other mechanisms (i.e. better working conditions; greater worker autonomy, security, and dignity; improved administration; better training of teachers; greater levels of faculty professionalism) must be at work here.”

While unions like those found in Wisconsin are far from perfect, they can be credited for many of the attributes listed by the authors of the Harvard Educational Review – and it’s therefore fair (and statistically sound) to equate unions and collective bargaining with a better educational system for our children. In future articles, we’ll take a critical look at unions (specifically WEAC) – but on this issue, the accurate data supports their claim.