School choice advocates are celebrating the final ruling issued by the U.S. Supreme Court this term, a decision that prevents public sector unions from collecting fees from nonmembers. What do unions have to do with school choice?
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, founder and president of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, puts it this way: The court’s decision provides parents, educators, and reformers the opportunity “to overcome two of the biggest obstacles to transforming education in America: the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.”
Those organizations, the NEA and the AFT, are the two largest teachers unions in the country, and analysts expect them to take a significant hit in membership—and, therefore, funding—as a result of last week’s ruling. Less money means less political influence. And less political influence means less opposition to school choice efforts.
“This is good news for the nation, for thousands of educators who have long been exploited by the teachers unions, and for families whose educational opportunities have been compromised by their political activity,” wrote Jeanne Allen, founder and CEO of the Center for Education Reform. “When it comes to education, the most fundamental of all policies that shape our futures, no longer can the union compel people to support activities and positions regardless of principle.”
The NEA gets only about 3 percent of its budget from fees collected from nonmembers. The fees are supposed to cover collective bargaining costs, since all employees theoretically benefit from contract negotiations. They cannot be used to pay for political activities. But any membership dues revenue the union doesn’t have to spend on collective bargaining can go to lobbying or backing political candidates union leaders support.
While losing those nonmember fees won’t hurt the unions much, analysts believe a significant group of union members will drop out of the organizations when they are no longer forced to contribute. Because dues often don’t cost much more than the fees, at least some teachers opt to become members to get the extra benefits. But if they don’t have to pay anything, many won’t.
Two states, Michigan and Wisconsin, recently passed laws preventing unions from collecting dues from nonmembers. As a result, in Wisconsin, the state NEA affiliate lost about half its members. The Michigan chapter lost 21 percent of its members in the three years after the change. If unions see similar losses across the rest of the country, that will put a significant dent in their revenue stream. A survey of NEA members suggested the loss could be even higher: When asked whether they would stop paying fees if they could, 57 percent said they would. If they hadn’t had any contact with the union for several years, that number jumped to 69 percent.
Both the NEA and the AFT have long fought against all school choice measures and have lobbied Democrats to toe their line. Derrell Bradford, executive director of the New York Campaign for Achievement Now, suggests Democratic politicians may feel more free to support education reforms that don’t involve traditional public schools: “Now, with the deep pockets of the teachers unions potentially compromised, maybe accepting underperforming schools and ironclad work rules in return for campaign cash doesn’t have to be the default position anymore. Our kids and our families should be so lucky.”
And they may get some support from teachers, who don’t all share the unions’ disdain for school choice options. Educators who work for charter and private schools have the same devotion to their profession as their colleagues in traditional public school classrooms. Now they have a chance to have their voices heard.
“The bottom line is the Supreme Court’s decision will not end teachers unions, but it will provide the freedom for every teacher to decide whom they support and how they want to be represented,” Bush wrote. “Ironically, the NEA and AFT, long hostile to the principles of choice and competition, will have to earn their members by demonstrating they are working in their best interests.”