By Rob Johnson and Daniel Kendrick
Teachers’ unions are some of the nation’s most vociferous opponents of school choice, but that doesn’t mean public school teachers always agree. Over the years, IJ has encountered many public school teachers who buck their unions and support our work to free students and their families from the public school monopoly. Now, IJ is representing those teachers before the United States Supreme Court.
The case is Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, and the question the Court will be considering when it meets for oral argument on Monday is whether government can force public school teachers to contribute money to their unions. Such compelled contributions are commonplace across the country and bring the unions hundreds of millions of dollars every year—money the unions can use for activities like fighting against school choice. Now, a group of teachers has filed suit claiming that violates the First Amendment.
Teachers object to being forced to pay money to their unions for a host of reasons, many of which have nothing to do with school choice: Some disagree with positions that unions take supporting candidates for political office; some disagree with positions that unions take in collective bargaining; and some raise religious or philosophical objections to unions generally.
IJ, however, has drawn on its long experience squaring off against teachers’ unions in the school choice arena and has submitted an amicus brief on behalf of current and former public school teachers who specifically object to their union’s advocacy on the school choice issue.
In a case where the briefing has sometimes taken on an abstract quality—focusing on questions like whether teacher salaries and staffing levels are “political” or “non-political” issues—IJ’s amicus brief is designed to provide a concrete illustration for the Court of the kind of harms that can be caused by compulsory union dues. Our clients have a specific and concrete disagreement with their unions about an important issue, and they object to being forced to contribute money to groups with which they disagree. That is a simple claim, and one that may make these issues feel more real for the justices on the Court.
For instance, our brief tells the story of Clark M. Neily Jr. (the father of IJ litigator Clark M. Neily III). After working as a NASA engineer, Clark started a second career as a science teacher in Massachusetts. Clark advocated publicly for school choice reforms, and when he went in person to testify in favor of a new charter school, his own union sent people to sit in the audience and stare him down. Like the other teachers on the brief, Clark objects to being forced to pay money to a union that he views as an ideological opponent.
The brief also details outrageous comments made by the unions in the course of their opposition to school choice and explains that IJ’s clients object to forced association with that point of view. Canvassing numerous union publications, the brief shows that unions “paint people who support school choice as corporate shills, supporters of racial segregation, and advocates of theocracy.”
Under current law, going back to a 1977 case called Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the unions can charge Clark and teachers like him annual fees—usually hundreds of dollars every year—so long as they give the teachers the right to demand that their money only be used for “non-political” expenses. The teachers in the Friedrichs case have asked that Abood be overruled, and IJ’s brief supports that request.
If the teachers are successful, and Abood is overruled, teachers will still be able to give money to their unions voluntarily. But public-sector unions will no longer be able to exact fees by governmental fiat. And teachers who support school choice will no longer be compelled to give money to one of school choice’s biggest opponents.
That will be a victory for school choice—and the First Amendment.
Daniel Kendrick is a Maffucci Fellow at the Institute for Justice
Robert Johnson is an attorney at the Institute for Justice and the Elfie Gallun Fellow for Freedom and the Constitution