Teachers unions and school choice

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the third day of July, 2018.

Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Last week the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to organized labor. Back in 1977, the issue of forcing employees to pay fees to unions seemed to be settled. That’s the year a unanimous court decided that it was only fair for non-union members to pay their share of union costs in negotiating wages.

EICHER: But over the years, partisan politics infiltrated public sector unions.

And because of that political activism, some workers began to object. They felt their union dues were going to pay for ideas they despised. They felt it violated their free-speech rights, and so they started to sue.

In 2016, one of their cases did reach the Supreme Court, and at that point the justices were one vote away from siding with the workers. But because Justice Antonin Scalia had died before the court decided the case, that left in place the old precedent.

REICHARD: But as of last week, free speech protections were deemed to outweigh fair share arguments.

So what does it mean now that the Court says public sector employees cannot be forced to pay fees to unions? More specifically, what does it mean for teachers? What does it mean for school choice?

Leigh Jones has looked into all of this. She’s our WORLD Radio News Editor and is here to talk about it.

Leigh, first explain the connection between unions and school choice?

LEIGH JONES, NEWS EDITOR: The National Education Society and the American Federation of Teachers are two of the largest teachers unions in the country. And they’re both very powerful in terms of lobbying both for political candidates and causes and especially against the school choice movement. And we’ll talk a little bit more about that later, but the idea here is the less money they have, the less money they’ll be able to use towards political activism and the less money they’ll be able to use fighting school choice efforts.

That makes sense. How much money do teacher unions actually get from non-members though? Will it make that much difference?  

JONES: Yeah, it’s not so much that they get a lot of money from the fees. The NEA, for example, gets only about 3 percent of its budget from the fees collected from non-members. But the thinking is that in a lot of places the teachers who don’t have to pay the fees might not be union members. This is the way it works: In many places the union dues are not that much more than the fees, and so some teachers may think, well, I can pay, let’s say $750 in fees or I can pay $1,000 for my union membership, so I might as well pay for the membership and get a few more perks that go with it. But if they don’t have to pay anything at all, then their calculation is a little bit different and they’re looking at paying nothing versus paying $1,000, and so the idea is that probably a lot of those teachers will stop joining unions altogether.

Well, is there evidence to show how many teachers might stop paying now that they don’t have to?  

JONES: Yeah, there is. There are two states, Michigan and Wisconsin, that recently passed laws that limited union action, and one of those limits was about collecting dues from non-members. In Wisconsin, the local NEA affiliate lost about half its members and in Michigan the NEA chapter lost about 21 percent of its members. The other interesting thing is that the NEA did its own internal survey trying to find out what effect this might have on the membership, and the survey there of their own members said if they could stop paying fees, 57 percent of their members said they would. That number jumped all the way to 69 percent when they were talking to members who hadn’t had any direct contact with the union in the last three years.

So tie this in to school choice, then. How have teacher unions been an obstacle to school choice?  

JONES: Well, not only have they fought it directly through lobbying efforts against it, but they’ve also pressured Democratic lawmakers, many of whom rely pretty heavily on support from unions, not to support any kind of school choice measures. And if there have been Democratic politicians who did support those measures, the teachers unions threatened to pull their funding. So, the idea is that if they have less money to spend on political causes, then their influence over Democrats might be just slightly loosened and then in some states where school choice measures are more popular, the Democrats might feel free to actually support those measures and listen more carefully to their constituents rather than having to worry about losing political funding.

Leigh Jones, WORLD Radio News Editor. Thanks so much!

JONES: Thanks, Mary.

(Associated Press/Photo by J. Scott Applewhite) Demonstrators outside the U.S. Supreme Court Building in Washington, D.C., on Monday.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Teachers unions and school choice

  1. Matt Brodine says:

    Thanks for or this piece! I think unions may have met a need in the past but have long outgrown their purpose. Nice to see their stranglehold is being loosened!

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