For Teachers, Knowledge is Power

Member Group : Commonwealth Foundation

Like any other group of professionals, teachers are a diverse lot, holding vastly differing social, cultural, and political views. So why is it that they’re lumped together and forced to join state and national teachers’ unions that often don’t reflect local teachers’ concerns?

That’s a question Heather Lister and Joe Connolly—Pennsylvania educators on the opposite ends of the political spectrum—have been forced to ask themselves. Though Lister is a Democrat and Connolly is a staunch conservative, both agree that they shouldn’t be forced to give part of their paycheck to a union just to keep the jobs they’ve earned.

August 10-16 is National Employee Freedom Week, and Pennsylvania, one of 26 forced-union states, has plenty of examples of why teachers should be free to pursue their dreams—not forced to join a union.

If you doubt that there’s any force involved, consider this: In most school districts, teachers either have to join a union as a full member or pay tribute in the form of "fair share" fees. Should a teacher refuse, they’ll be sent packing.

Adams County teacher Joe Connolly found out the hard way. Last year, his school district went agency shop and "fair share" fees were imposed on all non-union teachers.

A 14-year teaching veteran, Connolly pursued education and counseling so he could help teenagers struggling to transition to adulthood. Now he feels demeaned by having his choices taken away. Connolly asks, "What if the baseline assumption was that public school employees were capable of making an informed choice on their own?"

Heather Lister, a Dauphin County educator who initially worked in a struggling urban school district, agrees that teachers should control their own destinies and their own political spending. That’s why she opposes the National Education Association’s use of teachers’ union dues to advance its own political agenda rather than focusing on what’s best for teachers.

"I’m a professional and an American citizen," Lister explains. "I’m trusted with educating children every day, yet I can’t decide whether to support an organization or not? I should have the ability to evaluate my options and make a choice. A real choice. Not something that some nonsensical formula determines to be ‘fair.’"

Both teachers support legislation, called paycheck protection, which would end school districts’ practice of automatically deducting teachers’ union dues out of their paychecks. Currently, this political dues money—and even direct political campaign contributions—is collected and sent to union leaders using publicly-funded payroll systems.

According to the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest school employees’ union, an estimated 12 percent of teachers’ union dues—more than $7 million—will be spent on politics just this year. Despite the misinformation spread by union leaders publicly, this dues money can be used for political activities including lobbying legislators, sending election mailers, and buying political TV commercials. Dues even end up funding "Super PAC" attack ads.

Connolly and Lister want no part of their money being used for political advocacy they disagree with. They think paycheck protection could help reform unions from within—incentivizing unions to earn teachers’ dues by performing services that actually improve the classroom environment, not promoting political causes.

As it turns out, such choice and accountability are popular concepts across the spectrum. In a recent poll of 500 Pennsylvanians, 81 percent said workers should be able to decide "without force or penalty, whether to join or leave a labor union."

As part of National Employee Freedom Week, Commonwealth Foundation has partnered with organizations across America to let workers know about their right to resign from full union membership. The process is often arcane and filled with obscure deadlines, but teachers can regain some control over their own political speech by opting out.

Having a positive impact on kids’ lives is the aspiration of teachers like Connolly, Lister, and thousands more across the state. We should be trying to eliminate obstacles to this noble goal, not imposing burdensome requirements that make teachers feel like they’re sitting at the back of a lonely classroom, hand raised, waiting for someone to call on them.

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Priya Abraham is a senior policy analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation (, Pennsylvania’s free market think tank and runs Free To Teach ( a project to empower Pennsylvania teachers.