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The High Court takes on Teacher Freedom: A Global Advance for Education
posted by: Alana | January 11, 2016, 09:29 PM   

By Jeanne Allen


Labor unions have emerged in the past 40 years as one of the biggest power brokers on all social policy issues concerning the education of our youth. While their involvement was once intricately linked to teacher professionalism and school success, today they are locked in a mindset that is focused almost entirely on protecting collective bargaining rights and ensuring that tenure, seniority and uniform pay scales dictate who gets paid what, and who stays and goes in the classroom. Indeed, these issues are at the heart of the imminent oral arguments taking place at the U.S. Supreme Court this Monday, January 11 at 10 am. In Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association et al., ten public school teachers are asking the High Court to strike down Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, a 1977 case that sanctioned agency shop rules that permit unions to dock a teacher's pay regardless of whether they want to be a member of a union and represented in union activities. Laws in 23 states require workers who decline to join a union to pay fees anyway. These and other teachers around the country believe that this legal structure is anathema to teacher freedom and a violation of First Amendment rights.


Because the evidence on teacher quality actually demonstrates that issues covered by collective bargaining have nothing to do with quality teaching, it is mind-boggling to consider the unions' intransience on this and other issues regarding educational productivity and educational success. According to researchers, next to the family, the most important factor in whether students succeed is their teacher. As Harvard scholar Thomas J. Kane puts it, "A teacher's track record of producing student achievement gains does one thing better than any other measure (even if it does so imperfectly): it signals whether a teacher is likely to achieve similar success with another group of students." Citing Raj Chetty, John Friedman, and Jonah Rockoff, he also shares evidence about the impact of great teaching, arguing, "Being assigned to a teacher with a track record of student achievement gains is associated with higher earnings and rates of college going."


With so much evidence, it's difficult to understand why the cause for teacher rights and professionalism has to go to the U.S. Supreme Court for the public to recognize that labor unions which create and defend laws that treat all teachers the same are at odds with sound social science and what it takes to effectively teach kids. One reason that ordinary teachers have to take their case to the Supreme Court is because policymakers in many states will not consider changes to collective bargaining laws, largely because teachers unions are their largest contributor. Just consider how much political clout the American Federation of Teachers alone, the smaller of the two teachers unions, has committed to elections this cycle alone - $20 million.


But this case itself, while the unions are fighting it, has little to do with the union. It really is about whether teachers have the right to opt in or out because even those states that allow teachers to opt out of unions still require teachers to pay "agency fees" to unions. The problem with this is that collective bargaining is inherently political - government unions devote more resources to their political agenda than just the small portion of dues that goes directly to support their political causes.


What's worse is that many teachers have experienced frustration of unclear, hidden, or moving deadlines of when to file paperwork and have even felt intimidated and coerced by their very own union.


"We're asking that teachers be able to decide for ourselves, without fear or coercion, whether or not to join or fund a union," says Rebecca Friedrichs, a veteran public school teacher in Buena Park, California. "It's that simple."


Between 2008-2012, the teaching profession grew 48 percent, while student enrollment experienced only 19 percent growth. Despite little evidence that class size correlates to better education, fully 21 percent of the growth of the teaching profession is a result of various class size mandates. The rest may be related to the rise in special education and specialty teachers. Regardless of the reason, teacher quality is directly correlated with student outcomes, and for that reason and that reason alone, teachers and schools should be free to not only make employment agreements, but also engage in rewards for work well done.


Performance pay programs which provide hope that an individual could enter and grow their pay at much higher scales correlated to their outcomes have the potential to recapture some of the higher quality women that otherwise have found more personal and intellectual satisfaction in other fields. Men are also probably more likely to enter the profession given an improved status and pay potential. Yet despite growing acceptance of such efforts and the prominence of these issues in the public eye today, as well as the evidence that performance pay as a policy option has worked, there is still much confusion and misinformation, and enormous political pressure to maintain fixed pay scales based one experience, seniority and other input related factors.


I have witnessed first hand the impact on hiring and rewarding teachers based substantially (though not entirely) on outcomes. From districts such as Washington, DC to most charter schools, human capital management based on the quality of the individual's capabilities, knowledge and aptitude for the profession does result in better objective measures of school success.


There are many indicators of this. First, there are comparisons of schools in Washington before and after teacher quality reforms employing performance pay measures. Second, there is the comparison of teacher competency in traditional and charter sector schools (which are more than 91 percent non-union and have operational autonomy). According to Stanford University Economist Caroline Hoxby, "Charter school teachers have higher aptitude, took more math and science courses, work longer hours, and take on more extra duties."


Regardless of the data, however, that this week's chapter in the evolution of teacher union collective bargaining power may expose more of the public to these issues is a good thing. More than fifty percent of the general public do not know how teachers are paid, how they are hired and retained, or that unions are even part of influencing mandates about all aspects of education's human capital supply.


Whether one agrees or not with the premise at the heart of the Friedrichs case, with education a central to our personal productivity and our global success, we should welcome the controversy and the debate as a pathway to progress.

-Jeanne Allen, Founder and President Emeritus of The Center for Education Reform

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