CROCKETT and THORMAN: Public School Teachers: Second Class Citizens No More

The voices of millions of Americans who feel government employees should decide for themselves whether to financially support a union have been heard. In a case with far-reaching implications for the profession of teaching and education reform, the United States Supreme Court overturned a 1977 decision by the Court called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education that forced government employees to pay agency fees to a union.

Mark Janus, a social worker employed by the State of Illinois, convinced the Court that the Abood decision violates the First Amendment (Janus v. AFSCME).

A group of Detroit school teachers, led by Mr. Abood, made the same constitutional argument following the unionization of teachers in Michigan in the late 1960’s. They said forcing teachers to pay agency fees to cover the cost of collective bargaining violated their speech rights because collective bargaining is inherently political.

The Court in 1977 agreed that the state could not force public employees to become dues-paying members of a union but ruled that forcing employees to pay the costs of collective bargaining was an acceptable “impingement” of the First Amendment; this solved the “free rider” problem and appeased threatened labor unrest.

The problem? Collective bargaining affects all things political; taxes, spending and the size and policies of government, such as teacher licensure, salaries and pensions, K-12 curriculum and student discipline. The Court admitted its error; America will no longer sacrifice the speech rights of public employees on the altar of labor peace.

The Janus decision will help restore professionalism to teaching and empower educators to more freely communicate what they need to educate tomorrow’s leaders.

Mark Janus had a lot of help, especially from a veteran California teacher. Rebecca Friedrichs fought her way to the Supreme Court to make that same argument just two years ago. All observers, including government unions, said she won her case but Justice Scalia died before the opinion was published. (That is why the unions have been preparing to lose, for the second time.) So, Mark Janus picked up the baton to continue the race to restore employee freedom.

“This is a great day for education—for children, for families, for the teaching profession. For over forty years educators have been forced to financially subsidize the social, sexual, and political agenda of the state and national teachers’ unions—against our wills, behind our backs, and as a condition of employment. And children are the victims,” said Friedrichs, founder of For Kids & Country.

Imagine what will happen now that powerful state trade unions like Education Minnesota, and its national affiliates, the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT), will have to earn the support of teachers.

It is hard to overstate the importance of teachers, and the impact of the educational system, on our country. The Janus decision will help restore professionalism to teaching and empower educators to more freely communicate what they need to educate tomorrow’s leaders.

“We’re finally free; free to stand together, empower our profession and uplift our schools. Educators have been given a gift—the freedom to reject state and national unions. I hope teachers will opt out in large number, and stand together to reject state and national union bullies and reorganize into local only associations. That would lead to real education reform,” Friedrichs continued.

Unions have had guaranteed revenue for decades, no matter what kind of service they deliver. As a result, unions have grown disinterested in teachers, arrogant and highly political. This has not been good for the women and men they represent or for the students and parents who must live with the results.

With this taken-for-granted approach, teachers’ professional needs have drowned in a political maelstrom. Nonetheless, teachers have tried to solve educational challenges like the achievement gap, or propose innovative ideas for K-12 curriculum, only to be met with opposition from teachers’ unions. Real freedom is having a voice and choice on the job—not being silenced for pushing back against policies that are not working.

We have interviewed dozens of teachers; they tell us that while they love teaching, the job is getting harder, and less safe, every year.

With this taken-for-granted approach, teachers’ professional needs have drowned in a political maelstrom.

One St. Paul teacher, Aaron Benner, lost his job after he and other teachers were assaulted by students; he went to the school board after the school failed to discipline the students. His union, after twenty years of taking his dues, failed to defend him. Instead, it sided with the “restorative justice” policies of the district and against Benner. You can watch his video here.

But a win at the Supreme Court does not mean the road ahead is clear. While the NEA and other unions announced major budget and staff cuts before Janus was decided, unions are also trying to expand membership to include non-teachers, and re-define who gets to be a delegate, to shore up revenue and political clout. At the NEA convention in Minneapolis this summer, delegates will consider, for example, the following amendment: To open NEA membership to public education allies while preserving NEA governance positions for education professionals and active equivalents.

In other words, the unions are not just sitting still. Education Minnesota greeted teachers last fall with a “Membership Renewal” card. In anticipation of the Janus decision, teachers were all asked to sign an agreement that attempts to lock-in membership and union fees, and limits teachers to a narrow seven-day window to opt out. And they charged teachers an extra $14 in dues to pay for the campaign! The union reports that over 80 percent of teachers have signed the card.

These union agreements, designed to frustrate teachers, are under legal challenge. Now that the Court has restored the First Amendment rights of government employees, these kinds of union agreements are not expected to survive, but it could take time.

In the meantime, we caution teachers not to sign the renewal card. The card asks teachers for the last four digits of their social security number and other personal contact data that the union does not need to represent teachers. Moreover, if the data is hacked, or sold, teachers could be vulnerable to identity theft. Teachers who signed the card, however, still have the right to opt out.

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, said about the Renewal Agreement cards, “We’re having a kind of ‘This is who we are, this is who you are, how can we better serve you?’ conversation.”

Notice how Specht said, “this is who you are” not “tell us who you are.”

Union executives like Specht have no experience being customer focused; they have not made the institutional shift to thinking of teachers as customers and professionals, instead of captives to take for granted. Education Minnesota, and its national affiliates, the NEA and AFT, are still having a one-way “conversation.”

But, as Rebecca Friedrichs pointed out, if teachers use this gift from the Supreme Court, and exercise their restored rights, the union will not have a choice. It will have to learn to respect teachers.

Kim Crockett is Vice President and Senior Policy Fellow at Center of the American Experiment; Catrin Thorman is a Policy Fellow at Center of the American Experiment and she is a former classroom teacher. They are co-directors of EducatedTeachersMN.com, an on-line resource for teachers in Minnesota.

Kim Crockett

Kim Crockett is Vice President and Senior Policy Fellow at Center of the American Experiment. She is also co-director of EducatedTeachersMN.com, an on-line resource for teachers in Minnesota.

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