New Act 10 Research Finds Merit Pay Attracts Better Teachers, Increases Academic Outcomes

Ameillia Wedward and Will Flanders

As Act 10 reaches its second decade, the 2011 collective bargaining reforms continue to prove their value to K-12 education in Wisconsin. But this does not mean that the reforms are no longer controversial, or that opponents of the law have given hope of a repeal. In such an environment, it is important to continue to highlight the ways in which public sector union reform has mattered for Wisconsin.

New research out this month conducted by Barbara Biasi, professor at the Yale School of Management, does just that. She examines whether rewarding high-quality teachers with higher pay correlates to teacher proficiency thus, increasing student achievement rates in the long run. The results are convincing.

Prior to Act 10 in Wisconsin, collective bargaining kept public school teachers confined to strict pay schemes—favoring seniority instead of work ethic or student outcomes. Using data on Wisconsin teacher workforce both before and after the passage of Act 10 (2007-2015), Biasi found that some districts took advantage to implement pay schemes that reward teacher quality over the number of years they’d worked in the district in the wake of the law. Others did not, and were content to stick with the way pay had worked for generations. Biasi found that effective teachers gravitated toward districts where they could be rewarded. And in turn, using value-added measures of student outcomes, she saw that these districts experienced higher rates of student growth than districts that stuck with outmoded systems of pay.

Two Wisconsin cities serve as examples of how market forces can work to improve education. In general, Appleton implemented more market-driven pay schemes after the passage of Act 10, while Oshkosh chose to stick with the status quo. Biasi found that higher quality teachers flocked to Appleton for the flexible pay and better benefits, while lower-quality teachers would stay or move to Oshkosh for seniority reasons. Similar stories no doubt occurred throughout the state over time.

The results here add to a growing body of evidence that the reforms of Act 10 had a meaningful, positive impact in the state. Research from WILL outlined a number of examples of districts that were creative in their systems of pay throughout the state, without hurting their student teacher ratios. In other words, the rhetoric that claimed the teacher workforce would be decimated by the law has not come to fruition (though Wisconsin is not immune to nationwide teacher shortages).

The pandemic has worked, to some extent, to restore teachers’ unions as a powerful force in education policy around the country. Despite scientific evidence that reopening schools was safe, unions worked hard to keep students out of class, suffering untold amounts of lost learning. Perhaps galvanized by this newfound union strength, Gov. Evers attempted to restore some collective bargaining rights to unions in his budget, dismantling some of the key provisions of Act 10. This new study shows that not only was Act 10 an effective means of saving money, it is also vital to ensuring that Wisconsin’s kids have every opportunity for success in the future.

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