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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

August 19, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsElephant in the Room

Teachers must have a choice

Freedom of speech has been in the news lately, but unless you follow the Supreme Court like a sports team — I’m currently looking for people to join my Fantasy SCOTUS league if you are interested — you probably missed the recent hearings on the First Amendment as it relates to public sector unions. I’ll get you up to speed. I’m absolutely serious about the league.

Mandatory union fees are at the forefront of the case “Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association.” Ten California teachers and a Christian educator group brought the case against the California Teachers Association, asking the court to overrule a 1977 case that forces teachers to pay a compulsory fee, which is 2 percent of their salary, even if they choose not to join the union. The challengers of Friedrichs argue that this practice violates First Amendment rights of free speech and association. And I agree.

In the age of money dominating politics, public sector unions have drifted away from their core mission: to represent teachers. They advocate for policies that will keep unions in power but are not necessarily best for students. Unions donate to politicians and political causes that union leaders support. Teachers are forced to fund these donations whether or not they agree. California does have a six-week period in which teachers can object to having their union dues go toward political causes. But if unions believe six weeks is sufficient, why not change that period to be an opt-in?

The issue here, though, isn’t that union dues go to supporting political causes that unions support. No, the issue here is that teachers across this country do not support unions in representing them. I would barely trust unions to buy my groceries, let alone negotiate my contract.

Teacher unions engage in collective bargaining on divisive political topics such as teacher tenure, merit pay and classroom size — issues not all teachers support. During the opening arguments of the Friedrichs case, Justice Anthony Kennedy summed up the situation well. “The union basically is making these teachers compelled riders for issues on which they strongly disagree,” he said.

Critics of unions are often cast as critics of teachers as well. This is simply not the case. I oppose mandatory union fees because I support teachers and their right to choose what associations they are a part of. My mom is an educator, and one of my sisters will be pursuing an education major in college. I have the utmost respect for teachers and their individuality. It is time unions start respecting teachers too.

Kyle Stewart can be reached at kstewart1@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @KyleStew107