Coming Soon to California: Teachers’ Right to Work?

Big changes could be in the works for the California Teachers Association (CTA), the state affiliate of the country’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association (NEA).

The CTA claims it has 325,000 members. How many of them are voluntary dues-paying members is anybody’s guess. In the past the CTA has demolished “paycheck protection” initiatives in California—most recently Proposition 32 in 2012—through its sheer spending power, paid for in large part by compulsory dues from members.

That strategy doesn’t work so well in the courtroom, though.

The Harris V. Quinn Supreme Court ruling against compulsory dues collections from Illinois health care workers this summer doesn’t bode well for the CTA. Currently, it is also embroiled in its own legal challenge from the Center for Individual Rights (CIR), which is representing 10 California teachers and the Christian Educators Association International who are fighting against “agency shop” laws that require union membership as a condition of employment.

Should CIR prevail in the Ninth Circuit Court case Friedrichs v. CTA the practice of compulsory union dues imposed on any government employee could come to a screeching halt in the near future.

Larry Sand, a retired teacher and president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, explains in his recent City Journal article that the CTA is prepping for the likely death of “fair share” and life ever after in a paycheck-protection world:

The worst union in America is contemplating its worst nightmare—a time when state law no longer compels California’s teachers to pay it for the privilege of working at a public school. According to a 23-page PowerPoint presentation unearthed by union watchdog Mike Antonucci, California Teachers Association officials are taking seriously the idea that a raft of pending litigation could put an end to mandatory union dues in the Golden State, and they’re exhorting local union leaders to rise to the challenge. The presentation’s title is fitting: “Not if, but when: Living in a world without Fair Share.”

“Fair share” in this context refers to the union’s current legal right to collect dues from every public school teacher in the state, whether they join the union or don’t. ...

The CTA is evidently resigned to the inevitability of losing the state’s protection. The last part of the union’s PowerPoint outlines an action plan suggesting different techniques to attract new members.

“Right-to-work” fever is catching on, and Sand notes that leaders of other unions are also resigning themselves to life in a free world and consoling themselves with the fact that two of the country’s most successful membership organizations, the AARP and the NRA, don’t rely on compulsory dues.

Sand also cites recent national public opinion polls that found that 83 percent of Americans believe workers should be free to choose whether or not to join a union, and that 29 percent of union members would leave their unions if they could. He rightly concludes:

Perhaps unions are on the verge of conforming to what Alexis de Tocqueville called the characteristic institutions of American life—voluntary associations. It’s about time.

It sure is, and the implications for California students are also immense.

It remains to be seen how many teachers, given the chance, would actually choose to stay or become dues-paying CTA members. Until that’s all sorted out, certainly in the short-term the CTA’s political power in Sacramento would be a glimmer of what it has been. That power void would be a tremendous opportunity to advance parental choice in education throughout California—including ending the practice of assigned schools based on parents’ income and address.

Even more, California policymakers could be advancing one of the most promising K-12 reforms already operating in Arizona and Florida: educational savings accounts (ESAs). Under these programs, students whose parents don’t prefer a public school simply inform their state education agency, and 90 percent of what the state would have spent to educate them in public schools is deposited into that child’s ESA instead. With those funds parents can pay for private school tuition, tutoring, online courses, and other education-related expenses. What’s more, any unused funds remain in ESAs for future education expenses such as college.

Arizona teachers and other unions sued to end the ESA program there—and lost. Florida’s ESA is under a similar legal challenge now.

In an ideal world, taxpayer dollars wouldn’t flow through Sacramento or Washington, D.C., in the first place. ESAs are a step in the right direction because they put parents—not politicians and their special-interest allies—back in charge of education dollars that are supposed to be for their children’s education.

A CTA that’s brought back down to size—based on voluntary membership—will have enough troubles of its own and would have a tough time fighting parental choice, teacher tenure, and voluntary membership in the courts.

The time couldn’t be better for California students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers interested in the restoration of constitutional and sensible education policy.

Vicki E. Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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