Who Speaks for Teachers? The Supreme Court Will Have an Opinion

This week, the Supreme Court took a case that will ensure the excitement of the last few weeks will continue another term – at least for those in education.

SCOTUS has confirmed it will consider Friedrichs V. California Teachers Association, a case about the constitutionality of mandatory union dues. California teachers are arguing that paying mandatory union fees violates their free speech rights, especially when they disagree with the political positions the unions take. This is not the first time the Court has heard such an argument, and the ruling could have implications for public employees beyond teachers, but the case should be interesting in the education world because it literally pits a teacher, Rebecca Friedrichs, a 27-year veteran educator from Buena Park, California, against her union. It underscores the point that teacher voice is far from monolithic.

This recognition of the plurality of teacher voice is significant, as teacher demographics change and education reform efforts—from teacher evaluation to the Common Core State Standards—effect the daily experience of classroom teachers in different ways. The evolution of teacher voice has likely always been a trend, but the rise of teacher voice organizations has spotlighted the nuance these teachers add to the public debate about education policy decisions.

Take, for example, the debate over teacher tenure highlighted by the state lawsuit, Vergara v. California. Currently, California’s two teachers unions, the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers, are embattled in an appeal of the case that challenged the constitutionality of the state’s teacher tenure law, which grants job security after two years regardless of effectiveness. At the same time, the Los Angeles chapter of the teacher voice organization Educators 4 Excellence published a report that recommended connecting tenure to performance evaluations, not number of years of teaching experience. And in a Teach Plus report on tenure, 92 percent of teachers in the California branch of the teacher voice organization said they believe that they should be required to demonstrate classroom effectiveness as part of tenure decisions.

The functions of teachers unions and new teacher voice groups are inherently different. Teacher voice groups can be nimble in ways that unions are unable. But the growing presence of the organizations shows that more and more teachers are seeking ways to voice their opinions outside of their union, further exacerbating the underlying issue in Friedrichs v. CTA.

If the Supreme Court rules in favor of Friedrichs, the case could impact much more than teachers’ unions lobbying efforts. In California, between 30-40 percent of the approximate $1,000 annual dues go toward political organizing. The rest covers costs associated with benefits such as health care and pensions. The material impact unions could face in a Friedrichs win could be damning to many individual teachers in the system.

We won’t know the result of this case until this time next year, but it could have huge implications for liberal causes and teachers unions in particular. And the debate and decision will happen in the midst of a presidential campaign. It doesn’t get much more exciting than that.