I embraced education reform to strengthen schools, not to weaken unions, so I am not especially happy about the
Supreme Court’s ruling in Janus vs. AFSCME. The net effect of the ruling will be to take power and money away from public sector unions at an especially fragile moment in our history. Corporate power is increasing and income inequality is worsening. Anti-tax politicians are starving governments at every level. President Trump is dividing Americans in ways we could not imagine and reversing progress on important issues from climate change to trade. The Supreme Court has shifted to the right, and with Justice Anthony Kennedy stepping down, the entire progressive agenda is in peril. Unions built America’s middle class. They create upward pressure on wages. Sadly, they have been decimated in the private sector over the last half century, which is one of the reasons wage growth has been anemic for decades. Today, public sector unions are the only ones with enough membership and clout to counter these troubling trends. And now, they are likely to lose millions of members and billions in dues. To those of us fighting for educational equity, one of the strongest voices for fair funding will be diminished. To those of us who believe teachers deserve to be paid on a par with other professions, our cause has been undermined. To those of us who think teaching should be a high-status profession that attracts top college graduates, any decline of compensation or benefits will set us back. To those of us who understand that
teachers sometimes need the protection a union provides from petty or venal administrators, this ruling hurts.
Staying in the Fight for Educational Equity
One possible upside to the ruling is that unions may take this moment to rethink their role with respect to education. What teachers need more than anything is an advocate for professionalizing their field. At their best, teachers unions have partnered on reforms and led the call for high standards and meaningful accountability. They initially embraced teacher evaluation based in part on student achievement as a fair and needed component of accountability. For a while, they even supported charter schools as
laboratories of innovation and used their political clout to elect policymakers who advanced these agendas, including Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. What they have not done nearly enough, however, is stay in the fight for educational equity. They defend an unjust system of education tied to the wealth of each community rather than its potential. They keep the bar low for tenure, justify mediocrity and blame factors beyond our collective control for underperformance. They denigrate reform and innovation and deny the meaningful progress delivered by choice and accountability. Where their pay and their pensions have increased, unions have not taken responsibility for helping mitigate the consequences of their financial demands: tighter school budgets, larger class sizes, higher taxes, and fewer non-teaching personnel to provide the services poor kids need, like counseling, social and emotional support, and health care. The Janus ruling not only prohibits mandatory “agency fees” that are collected to support wage and benefit negotiations, but it also requires teachers to proactively opt in for those services rather than automatically enrolling members in the union and giving them the right to opt out. Essentially, unions will now have to
earn the support of teachers. That means teachers will need a reason to opt in and my hope is that unions give them one. Teachers unions must become champions of our educational progress. They should drive dialogue about how best to evaluate schools and empower teachers. They should lead the conversation about how to make school more relevant in a changing world and challenge colleges of education to modernize and improve teacher training. Above all, I hope they help their teachers understand that their collective voice matters not only for securing good wages and benefits for themselves and more funding for schools, but also because it’s a path to a more valued and honored profession, a more equitable and just school system, and a more balanced and fair society. That is not always the
teachers unions we have today but it is the teachers unions we need tomorrow. For the sake of our kids and our teachers, let’s hope it happens.
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with