Editor’s Note: Jeb Bush was the 43rd governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007 and is the founder and chairman of the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a nonprofit organization focused on state education reform. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Wednesday’s decision by the US Supreme Court in the case of Janus v. the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees is an opportunity for parents, educators and reformers to overcome two of the biggest obstacles to transforming education in America: the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.
The court affirmed what the education reform community has long known – all the work teachers unions do today is inherently political despite claims to the contrary. Fortunately, under the ruling, teachers in the 22 states where compulsory union dues were still legal will no longer be forced to support a political agenda against their will and in violation of their First Amendment rights.
Teachers unions have long been able to put the agenda of a few above the interests of the broader membership they are paid to serve. Over the last several decades, teachers unions, movements historically organized to protect the rights of educators, have veered staggeringly far from their stated mission.
Today their leaders prefer to exert influence beyond the economic interests of their members, on issues ranging from funding Planned Parenthood to weighing in on foreign policy issues such as the Iran deal and a two-state solution for the Middle East.
It’s hard to believe teachers union bosses don’t have more pressing issues to address given the state of our schools.
Sadly, just 37% of today’s students will leave high school ready for college-level reading – limiting their chances of finding a good job – according to 2015 assessment results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, better known as the Nation’s Report Card. This is despite spending more per student than almost every country in the world.
According to the recently released results from the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress, student performance in both reading and math has remained flat for the last decade, and the gap between high-achieving students and low-performing ones is growing even wider.
There are bright spots, such as Florida, Mississippi, Indiana and Massachusetts, which are seeing real academic gains, but, overall, the stagnant, and in some states declining, results shine a light on the failure of our education system to prepare students for the most competitive economic climate in history.
The states making progress owe these victories to the teachers in their classrooms, and the more disappointing scores represent the challenges – from ensuring all students meet high expectations to paying special attention to students who are most at risk of being left behind – so many of our educators grapple with each day and ably strive to overcome. Unfortunately, rewarding the hard work of teachers is not the chief priority of the organized labor representatives that these educators pay hundreds of dollars a year out of their own pockets.
The schism between union leaders and the teachers they claim to represent was evidenced in the National Education Association’s own internal surveys, according to reporting by union watchdog Mike Antonucci. He attended an NEA summit where these startling statistics were revealed: In states where compulsory fees have been in place, nearly 60% or more of members would quit paying union dues if able. The number was nearly 70% for members whom the union hadn’t spoken to in the last few years.
The numbers shouldn’t be surprising given the steady decline in union membership over the last two decades. For years, teachers unions have spent much of their time fighting for a small few – focusing on rare cases involving accusations of misconduct or defending the disgraced individuals exiled to New York City’s infamous “rubber rooms” – while ignoring the broad needs and interests of America’s great teachers.
Additionally, remember that a significant percentage of union members aren’t teachers, but education support personnel, which further compounds the already divided focus of labor bosses.
The political wealth and muscle employed by the teachers unions in fighting education reform at every step is undeniable. The American Federation of Teachers fought giving parents more options in Louisiana in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; the unions have spent years suing the state of Florida over accountability and choice reforms that have helped narrow the achievement gap in the state; and unions are spending millions to fund California candidates for governor and superintendent of public instruction to stop the growth of charter schools in the state, which currently serve more than 630,000 students.
The problem with spending most of their bandwidth on politics and opposition to common-sense reforms is that students and teachers suffer. Merit pay policies to recruit and reward excellent teachers, teachers who teach in the most challenging schools and teachers who teach in subject areas where there is a shortage of educators are almost always resisted by the teachers unions, to the detriment of their members.
Don’t forget the ostracizing that is done to those teachers who choose not to join their teachers union. Last year, the Massachusetts Teachers Association refused to recognize its home-state colleague Sydney Chaffee, an extraordinary humanities teacher at Codman Academy Charter Public School in Dorchester who was recognized as the 2017 National Teacher of the Year, because she worked at a school that was not unionized.
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The bottom line is the Supreme Court’s decision will not end teachers unions, but it will provide the freedom for every teacher to decide whom they support and how they want to be represented. Ironically, the NEA and AFT, long hostile to the principles of choice and competition, will have to earn their members by demonstrating they are working in their best interests.
This is great news for the hardworking teachers of America who deserve to be compensated and respected as the professionals they are, and for students, who will ultimately be the greatest benefactors of the innovative and proven educational reforms that have the potential to transform our antiquated school system into a 21st-century, world-class education model.