It goes without saying that education and economics go hand in hand. For most parents, regardless of race or class, part of the American Dream is for our children to attend safe, family friendly, high-quality schools with great principals, teachers and support staff. As parents, we imagine that special day when our children graduate high school, attend a traditional college or trade school, and then obtain livable wage employment, hopefully with family friendly benefits.
The harsh reality, however, is that many parents, especially from Black and poor communities, must send their children to public schools that do not meet their academic and life needs. In addition, parents are learning that the many teachers who work tirelessly to put the needs of children first, don’t have much power within their own unions to effectively support students. Why? Because I learned, through the suit of Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, that many teachers are beholden to a narrow electorate of union politicians that shape education policy to favor the political agendas of union leadership, rather than the students in greatest need. All of this, at the expense of the taxpayer, regardless of results.
So, what do parents need to know about Friedrichs? Plenty. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case brought by Mrs. Rebecca Friedrichs and nine other California teachers who are not members of the teacher’s union, but are required to pay agency fees to the union, say that they do not benefit from the collective bargaining agreement and that collective bargaining is political because it includes workplace rules and requirements that prevent laws from being passed that would improve under-performing and under-served schools.
Friedrichs and many of her fellow teachers share the dreams we parents have for our children. This includes safe, high-quality schools that equitably educate all children, regardless of their zip-code and they encourage their colleagues to deliver the best possible teaching to all children, regardless of their family backgrounds. The reality is that families of color like mine are not alone in our fight for fair and just education.
For me, the suit brought by Friedrichs and her nine other colleagues brings awareness of the consequences of forced compulsory dues laws. While compulsory laws may have had good intentions decades ago, laws that force parents and teachers to do what is against their interests and those of children are wrong. It is unconstitutional, unethical, and wrong to force parents to send their kids to unsafe and low performing schools. It is unconstitutional, unethical, and wrong to force teachers to pay for other people’s political campaigns and agendas. Neither parents nor teachers should be forced to do what they believe is morally wrong.
How can it be legal to force someone, in this case a teacher, to pay for an organization’s political agenda? How can forced compulsory dues laws be consistent with the First Amendment guarantees of free speech? Do the Constitutional rights of the individual matter? For both teachers and families, our ability to choose, either to support or not support political action, or to choose schools for our kids, is a Constitutional matter upon which no one should encroach.
But Friedrichs isn’t just about choice. It is also about justice, especially for our children. As parents, we are tirelessly fighting for equitable changes that would improve schools in disenfranchised and marginalized communities are prevented by union collective bargaining agreements. Each day, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers, and their affiliates use dollars forced out of the pockets of teachers to advance policies, laws, and collective bargaining agreements that stand against justice for our children and even against the interests of teachers they proclaim to represent.
If NEA and AFT were no longer able to force every teacher—even teachers who disagree with those policies—to fund their advocacy, we would have a better chance at adopting reforms that are fair to effective teachers and meet the needs of students. We could get rid of the policies and practices advanced by National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers affiliates that prevent justice for students most in need of meaningful review of teacher performance, demand assignment and retention of teachers based on seniority rather than effectiveness and need, and insist that teachers be compensated without regard to what, where, or how well they teach. We could instead fight for policies that bring justice to our children.
As a Black parent, living in the age of Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and the many unarmed Black people that needlessly lost their lives in 2015, what I want and need more than anything is for the Constitution to matter for all citizens. Children and families need our government to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which guarantees the equal protection of the laws and due process for all.
So you can imagine that I empathize with Friedrichs and her colleagues. She is compelled to send her dues to an education bureaucracy with which she did not agree, the same way parents like me are compelled by law to send our own children to schools that we do not trust. Her compulsory dues, like my children’s compulsory attendance, are part of a system designed to protect the economic interests of a white professional class at the expense of the freedom and equality for black, Hispanic, and Native American students.
Parents want the freedom to demand high quality educational opportunities for our children, and teachers like Friedrichs agree with us. But she is forced by these laws to fund anti-parent choice, anti-accountability lobbying that is fundamentally unjust. And this is wrong.
The research is clear: a quality education is the foundation needed to help ensure families and communities obtain careers that will lead to fulfilling, equitable lives. Parents like me are grateful for teachers like Friedrichs. Their fight is not only constitutionally just, it is also necessary for our public education bureaucracy to work the way it should, on behalf of children.
About the Author: RiShawn Biddle is Editor and Publisher of Dropout Nation — the leading commentary Web site on education reform — a columnist for Rare and The American Spectator, award-winning editorialist, speechwriter, communications consultant and education policy advisor. More importantly, he is a tireless advocate for improving the quality of K-12 education for every child. The co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era, Biddle combines journalism, research and advocacy to bring insight on the nation’s education crisis and rally families and others to reform American public education. This article originally appeared in Dropout Nation and is republished here with permission from the author.