The days of 'one-size-fits-all' for schools are over

The days of 'one-size-fits-all' for schools are over
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National School Choice Week is a week dedicated to celebrating the choices that many parents have when selecting a school that suits the unique needs and gifts of each of their children. There’s another type of choice we should celebrate this week: teacher choice.

High-quality public charter, magnet, private, parochial and online schools offer rewarding environments for America’s teachers. Even traditional districts are expanding options through open enrollment and course choice, enhancing those schools for the next generation of teachers.

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The days of one-size-fits all — if they ever really existed — are over.

This is a good thing. Although they are often treated as a single voting bloc with a single perspective, teachers are a diverse community made up of individuals making deeply personal decisions, including where to teach, what association to join, and how to advocate for policies that serve their students and their colleagues.

Despite this progress, we are not yet benefitting from the full range of educator voices on policy, especially on school choice.

We hear from union leaders, of course, who mostly view parents and teachers choosing schools as an “existential threat” to their political power. But that isn’t the perspective of al — or even most — teachers.

According to the 2018 Education Next Poll conducted by Harvard University, 45 percent of teachers support or are neutral on charter schools, 56 percent support or are neutral on tax credits and 42 percent support or are neutral on universal choice.

School choice isn’t the only policy issue where opinion is divided but union leaders are unequivocal. A 2018 Educators 4 Excellence survey of unionized teachers confirmed this disconnect, revealing only 28 percent of unionized teachers believed policy decisions by the union represent their perspective “a great deal.” Fully 20 percent answered “not very much” or “none at all.”

Teacher dissatisfaction with union policies isn’t surprising. Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME, more than 20 states, including California, New York, Pennsylvania and Illinois, allowed public unions to require teachers who do resign union membership to pay fees to the union. Unions could ignore dissatisfied members and still collect their money. 

It also isn’t surprising that the same union leaders that oppose parents and teachers choosing schools of choice also oppose choice for teachers when it comes to association membership.

After Janus outlawed those fees, many unions made it even more difficult for their members to quit, making opt-out windows comically inconvenient — sometimes just a few days in the summer — and unnecessarily complicated. According to a recent survey by TeacherFreedom.org, only 19 percent of teachers agreed it was “easy to resign union membership.” That’s gym-membership-level difficult. No wonder union leaders feel confident overstating teacher opinion on school choice.

As a result, some of those educators who support school choice policies — including those teaching in schools of choice or sending their children to schools of choice — are trapped funding organizations determined to end those programs.

This practice has the effect of silencing teachers who support school choice and forcing them to fund opposition of school choice. Many teachers just keep quiet and focus on teaching. The TeacherFreedom.org survey revealed nearly 20 percent of teachers disagree with many union policies but don’t want to offend their colleagues by speaking out.

We need this to change.

Teachers must be free to leave and join associations that represent their perspectives and respect their choices.

Teachers should be encouraged to speak up as individuals, even if that means disagreeing respectfully with union leaders and colleagues.

No teacher should be punished for disagreeing with the union and no teacher should have to jump through hoops to voice displeasure with union policy positions by resigning membership.

Teachers serve a vital role in policy debate, bridging gaps by speaking as parents and as educators, communicating effectively with their fellow teachers, and helping to ground reform proposals in the realities of an actual classroom.

We can start by recognizing the diverse perspective of teachers and celebrating the many choices they make, especially choosing the district or school that is right for them and joining organizations and associations that share their views. 

Colin Sharkey is the executive director of the Association of American Educators, which supports TeacherFreedom.org, an online resource for educators looking to explore their rights and options regarding union membership.