Teaching is a noble profession. It enlightens minds, promotes wisdom and insight, and opens the doors of opportunity to a brighter future.
Good teachers deserve our respect and admiration for the hard work they do in educating children. Over the last 30 years, though, respect for the teaching profession in public schools has declined due to its association with monopoly government unions.
Government unions hold a lock on access to teaching jobs, because public schools are banned from hiring teachers who are not dues- or fee-paying members.
In Washington state, all public school teachers, and most other school employees, have been forced to pay the union about $1,000 a year or face termination. The state’s most powerful union, the Washington Education Association (WEA) takes in about $37 million a year this way.
WEA union membership is based on fear. Many teachers object to being forced to pay for a political agenda that has little to do with the work they do in class. Few teachers speak out for fear of being harassed or intimidated by union officials.
That all changed recently when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in Janus v. AFSCME, that Mark Janus, a state child support specialist in Illinois, does not have to pay a government union as a condition of holding his job. The ruling means that public entities may no longer violate the constitutional right to freedom of association in hiring and employment.
The landmark decision ends the fear and intimidation that many teachers felt. It bars school districts from treating teachers like cogs in a bureaucratic machine. The Janus decision has now created an environment where reform is possible. Teachers will have a stronger voice to create professional associations on par with those that represent doctors, lawyers, architects, engineers, and other trained professionals.
First, the ruling allows teachers to leave a union without losing their jobs. This means teachers will no longer be afraid to speak out. This could create an environment where unions are accountable and responsive to what teachers want. Rather than slotting teachers into a one-size-fits-all system of union seniority rules, school administrators may soon be able to reward and recognize each teacher’s individual topic knowledge and instructional skill. Good teachers may be able to get higher pay and benefits based on merit, like other professionals.
Second, teachers may urge changes to union work rules that short students on instructional time. Early Dismissal Wednesdays, Late Start Mondays and other union work reductions and stoppages may become less common now that teachers can object without fear. Janus may lead public schools to offer students five full days of learning a week, like private schools do.
Third, the Janus ruling is likely to reduce conflict in the system. In the past, the political power of unions has led to strikes, rolling shut-downs, and sick-outs that regularly close schools to students. Federal reporting shows a child in Washington state has been more likely to suffer from union action than a child in any other state.
Caring teachers will now be free to urge the union to avoid harming the education of children because of a political dispute among adults. Professionals work out their differences, without hurting the interests of their patients, clients, or students.
Fourth, current union rules make it nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher. Teachers in the post-Janus environment will be able to demand removal of ineffective teachers from school classrooms. Good teachers should be promoted and rewarded, while bad teachers are weeded out, in keeping with the practice of other professions.
The Supreme Court’s decision is a key victory in respecting the rights and choices of public workers and in advancing the quality and respect of the teaching profession. The ruling doesn’t ban government unions — teachers may freely join if they choose — but it does end forced unionization based on fear.
Teaching is one of the hardest, and most rewarding, jobs around. The Janus ruling lets teachers restore respect for their profession by disassociating themselves from union practices that harm students.
Liv Finne is director of the Center for Education Reform at the Washington Policy Center in Seattle.