As we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week this week, teachers across the nation remain remarkably underappreciated. In at least five states so far this year, educators are voicing their discontent by organizing walkouts and strikes to protest lagging salaries and woefully inadequate supplies. Viral social media posts of classrooms in deplorable conditions and stories of educators moonlighting in the gig economy to make ends meet have likely increased support for more investment in education.
While there are many education policy questions that divide Americans, we can all agree that our hardworking and talented educators deserve great compensation, clean and safe workplaces, and our genuine appreciation for doing a job critical to our country’s future.
Here’s something else we should all agree on: educators, as professionals who are tasked with teaching our children to become independent, critical thinkers, should have the power to decide whether or not to join and fund the national teachers unions.
The freedom to fund a union – or not – means freeing teachers to support the policies they choose, not solely the ones dictated by union leadership. For those educators who think unions are too focused on advancing a partisan political agenda instead of meeting their professional needs, freedom means the dignity of keeping their own money. For those teachers who choose to fund a union, their dues will be more impactful, since they are no longer coerced but earned annually by satisfying voluntary members.
Yet in the 21 states where educators are forced to pay union fees – even if they are not union members – a teacher who supports high quality charter schools or would prefer a 401k-style portable pension over an underfunded state pension is paying the union to lobby against her values and beliefs. This dilutes the true voice of teachers, distorts their influence in the political process, and ultimately disrespects the profession.
This isn’t a hypothetical. There are tens of thousands of teachers nationwide who have chosen not to be a union member because they don’t support union policies and politics, but they are forced to pay them hundreds of dollars year after year to lobby against their own interests. In fact, the Association of American Educators has teamed up with several California member teachers in this very situation to challenge these laws in court.
On the other hand, in more than half the country, teachers are allowed to opt out of paying union fees when they opt out of union membership. Another lawsuit, Janus v. AFSCME, was heard by the Supreme Court earlier this year. If the Court decides in favor of Mr. Janus, then teachers in all 50 states and D.C. will enjoy this same freedom. Little will change at first, with laws and policies limiting the exercise of teacher freedom in even the right-to-work states, but over time educators will be empowered.
Educators should be free to make their own choices unencumbered by union restrictions. We cannot respect and appreciate educators without trusting them with the independence and autonomy to decide which organization best represents their interests.
The freedom to choose or deny services and representation is a concept as old as our country – and why the First Amendment guarantees the right of every citizen to associate freely. Teachers, who are charged with passing on our nation’s principles to our youth, should be free to embody the concept of freedom to associate.
As we celebrate Teacher Appreciation Week, one way we should recognize the critical value of teachers is by supporting their right to choose whether or not to join a union. We rightly entrust teachers with our future, we can trust them to decide which professional association has earned their money. Teachers deserve options, and forcing everyone into a union denies their ability to decide what is best for them, their profession, and their students. Appreciating teachers means respecting their choices, union and non-union alike.
Colin Sharkey is executive vice president of the Association of American Educators, a non-union professional educator association committed to a teaching profession that is student-oriented, well-respected and personally fulfilling.