OPINION: A Supreme Court Decision That Could Foster Substantial Education Reform

REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

William J. Bennett Former Secretary of Education
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Pennsylvania is charting a path to protect the free speech rights of teachers.

In an ever-increasingly volatile political environment, we cannot do enough to make sure that everyone’s First Amendment rights are respected. In doing so, we can ensure that the promise of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling is fulfilled.

Over the summer, the Supreme Court in Janus vs. AFSCME decided that public sector employees could not be forced to pay union fees as a condition of employment. The plaintiff believed his First Amendments rights were being violated when he had no choice but to help fund union conducted political activities with which he disagreed.

Since that ruling, more than 20 states — including Pennsylvania — are looking at what changes are necessary to bring them into compliance with the ruling.

These states allow unions to collect dues directly from public employees’ paychecks under a “fair share” premise; since all employees benefit from the union’s collective bargaining, all employees should contribute to operations.

The court ruling, though, now requires that employees opt-in to paying instead of having to opt-out.

In 2015, the Commonwealth Foundation reported that new teachers in 70 percent of school districts in Pennsylvania, upon being hired, were automatically counted as part of their school district’s union bargaining unit. The teachers were then given two choices: 1) become a full member of the union and pay $600 per year; 2) decide not to join the union and pay $400 per year.

The unions argue that since all employees benefit from collective bargaining agreements, all employees — regardless of whether they are a union member or not — should pay union dues. Many educators disagree with that position and resented seeing money taken from their paychecks each month as a condition of employment.

Today I spoke before a hearing of the Pennsylvania State Senate Majority Policy Committee to discuss the long-term effects of the Janus decision. My emphasis in the hearing was this: the Janus decision can provide the opportunity for teachers to think of themselves in what may be a new way for many of them, as true professionals.

Let us create an environment for teachers in which they receive professional support separate from any political agenda. That is what the real promise of this decision is: eliminating political considerations from the classroom so that teachers can focus instead on a larger vision of themselves and their role.

Educators deserve access to affordable professional insurance, fair decision-making processes, and reliable information about compensation and benefits.

I believe that, given the opportunity, most teachers will choose a more professional course as opposed to a one-size-fits-all bureaucracy that too-often comes hyper-political unions pushing a confrontational dynamic with policy-makers at all levels of government.

Some union supporters say the ruling will diminish unions’ clout by eliminating a significant source of funding. A decade from now, we can look back at Janus and understand that it was a turning point for the professionalism of teaching or we can continue down the same path we’re on now.

I say that the status quo is unacceptable. I believe that hundreds of thousands of teachers throughout the country, as well as parents, caregivers and students, would agree.

Government leaders, such as those who sit on the Pennsylvania State Senate Majority Policy Committee, have the chance to develop legislation that will compensate teachers in a way not possible under the current labor framework.

We all recognize great teachers are the most important catalyst in improving student performance, so let’s work together to find ways to reward them — just like the most effective and productive employees are rewarded in every other profession. Let us raise them up.

William J. Bennett is a former U.S. Secretary of Education under President Ronald Reagan and is the chairman of Conservative Leaders for Education.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.