The Supreme Court just dealt a powerful blow to teachers’ unions. In 22 states, teachers who don’t want to join a union have been compelled to pay “agency fees” anyway. The justices ruled 5–4 in Janus v. AFSCME that this infringes on an individual’s First Amendment rights, as it compels one to contribute to a (liberal) political-advocacy organization. This decision is sure to lead to a substantial decline in union membership and political clout.
But conservatives should not simply sit back and gloat. Rather, state and local leaders ought to extend an olive branch to their longtime political opponents and find common ground to achieve the promise of the post-Janus educational era.
Teachers’ unions are supposed to protect teachers — a good and noble role. Unfortunately, decade after decade of additional “protections,” often written to protect the worst actors, created a sclerosis in many school districts. For example, when former Washington, D.C., chancellor Michelle Rhee realized that the central office couldn’t get same-day attendance data from the paper-based reporting system, she suggested that teachers use their computers, but the Washington Teachers’ Union fought her on it, arguing that teachers were protected from doing data-entry work.
Rhee went on to crush the power of the union and — famously posing on the cover of Time magazine, with a broomstick to sweep out the old — became an education icon. She represented a new hope: If we armed the best and brightest administrators with expert-designed systems and meaningful leverage over teachers, we’d see “transformational” change. D.C. became the nation’s flagship school district. Graduation rates rose and suspensions plummeted, just as policymakers wanted. The Obama administration used federal carrots and sticks to pressure states to adopt similar policies.
Unfortunately, the “success” of D.C. Public Schools was built on systematic fraud. School administrators, who took school discipline almost entirely off the books, had the incentive and the ability to advance their careers by using teacher evaluations to coerce teachers to pass kids who didn’t come to school. It took the media to expose the scandal; the Washington Teachers’ Union had been too weak even to raise the alarm bell. Given how many school districts have adopted the D.C. model, weakened union power ought to give parents cause for concern.
Then again, it’s not as though today’s unions are doing a bang-up job of protecting teachers either. Unions face a tension between the interests of their members and the social-justice cause du jour. For example, on school discipline, unions must weigh the physical safety of their teachers against the politically correct policy initiative to force down school-discipline rates in an effort to fight the “school-to-prison pipeline.” Administrators, facing pressure from bureaucrats and activists, refuse to remove students from class when they’re disruptive and even violent. Rather than have teachers’ backs, national union leaders have joined social-justice advocacy organizations in the call to maintain federal pressure for disciplinary leniency.
Union leaders have felt free to prioritize liberal activism over protecting their members because compulsory agency fees meant that teachers had no choice but to support the union. Now that it has been ruled unconstitutional for teachers to be compelled to pay those fees, a union must actually prove to teachers that it’s worth the cost. Doing things like funneling funding to defend an Obama-era federal initiative that undermines teachers’ authority and at times endangers them is not going to cut it much longer.
There should be a natural sympathy between teachers’ unions and conservatives when it comes to rolling back top-down technocratic policies that sacrifice educational quality in favor of squeezing statistics for the self-satisfaction of distant bureaucrats and activists. Three years ago, conservatives and teachers’ unions formed an alliance at the federal level to scale back the Obama administration’s education overreach with the Every Student Succeeds Act.
After Janus, conservative state and local leaders could find common cause with teachers’ unions on similar regulatory and statutory rollbacks. Union leaders could help pinpoint outdated and constrictive policies, and Republicans could help clean house. The Obama Department of Education used carrots and sticks to spark a flurry of new laws. After Janus, conservatives and teachers’ unions could unite under a Goldwater-esque banner not to pass laws but to repeal them.
Conservatives and teachers’ unions share a philosophical predilection for local autonomy and against bureaucrat-driven compliance directives.
Unions should also join forces with Republican state legislators and governors to combat graduation inflation. Everyone within the education establishment has an incentive to inflate graduation rates artificially — except teachers. Union leaders should collaborate on hearings with Republican legislators who are eager to score political points by exposing fraud in Democrat-controlled urban districts.
Similarly, teachers’ unions and conservative legislators ought to collaborate in hearings on federally driven school-discipline reform. Hundreds of school districts across the country have been coerced by Department of Education investigations to adopt lax discipline policies. At times, even school-board members were not aware that the feds were in the driver’s seat. Teachers have been endangered and abused as administrators look the other way or manipulate safety data. All this ought to be exposed, district by district, state by state.
On some issues, such as school choice, conservatives and teachers’ unions will never see eye to eye. But without the resources for them to engage in frivolous liberal activism, and with a stronger incentive for them to serve their constituents, it’s possible to imagine a new era in education politics. Conservatives and teachers’ unions share a philosophical predilection for local autonomy and against bureaucrat-driven compliance directives. If tomorrow’s unions can soft-pedal the partisanship, then conservatives ought to be prepared to extend an olive branch and work with them to advance shared principles and foster better schools for all students.