Free speech and free riders

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

“Or the right of public employees to free-ride on other public employees.”

Who knew that second paragraph is what the Founding Fathers were thinking when they drafted the First Amendment to the Constitution? Apparently a majority of the Supreme Court knows.

According to news coverage of Monday’s oral arguments, the five conservative members of the court are likely to rule in favor of the plaintiffs in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, a lawsuit that claims charging “fair-share” fees for union representation violates the First Amendment.

California teacher Rebecca Friedrichs and her fellow plaintiffs argue that the fees amount to forced support for a political organization – the California Teachers Association – whose policies and positions they don’t support. But public-sector unions can’t use fair-share fees for lobbying and politics. The fees can pay only the costs that unions incur for bargaining contracts and representing employees.

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Next step in Indiana’s war on unions

Credit the Indiana Chamber of Commerce with being the first to remind us, this legislative season, of the immortal words of Henry Adams: “Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.”

How else does one explain the chamber’s current push to ban the practice of deducting union dues from the paychecks of Indiana school teachers? The Indianapolis Star reports Sunday that the business group has made the issue a top priority for the legislative session that starts in January.

Chamber President Kevin Brinegar tells the Star that government entities, such as school corporations, “shouldn’t be in the business of collecting union dues or, particularly, political contributions.” Maybe or maybe not, but isn’t that a decision that local elected officials can make?

No one is forcing school districts to deduct dues from the paychecks of teachers who voluntarily choose to join the Indiana State Teachers Association or the smaller Indiana Federation of Teachers. If districts are offering to make the deductions, it’s because local school boards have agreed to do so.

And teachers can’t be required to join the union or pay representation fees, even though the unions must represent all teachers covered by local contracts, whether they’re union members are not. That “right to freeload” was written into law Continue reading

Election is over, and it’s payback time

The week after an election is probably a good time to recall the immortal words of Henry Adams, the American historian and diarist: “Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, has always been the systematic organization of hatreds.”

In other words, if you backed the wrong side last week, get ready to duck.

Take a look at the money disbursed this election season by the Indiana Political Action Committee for Education, the political arm of the Indiana State Teachers Association. It spent close to $1 million by Oct. 9, most of it in contributions of as much as $50,000 to Democratic legislative candidates.

But most of those candidates lost. Republicans won control of the Indiana House by a 59-41 margin. In the state Senate, the margin is so lopsided that the handful of Democrats don’t even need to show up for Republicans to do business.

Conveniently enough, any hypothetical payback of the ISTA would align nicely with the Republican agenda of weakening the ability of teachers’ unions to block reforms such as merit pay and the gutting of tenure protections. Continue reading

Reformist unions – who would have guessed?

Teachers’ unions seem to be embracing educational reform almost everywhere you look these days. Maybe they’re trying to improve their image in the face of the Waiting for “Superman” movie. Maybe they’re responding to pressure from the Obama administration.

Or maybe progressive unionism was out there all along, but we just weren’t looking.

Let’s start with Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Last week, he met in Tampa, Fla., with American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten and National Education Association president Dennis van Roekel to announce plans for a national education reform conference on labor-management collaboration.

“In dozens of districts around the country — from Tampa to Pittsburgh to Denver — union leaders and administrators are moving beyond the battles of the past and finding new ways to work together to focus on student success,” Secretary Duncan said. He cited eight examples, Continue reading

An overly convenient solution

People who care about the nation’s schools – and the nation’s children – should probably take heart in the buzz that’s being generated by the new documentary Waiting for Superman. Anything that gets people excited about the importance of schools should have potential for good.

But accounts from people who have seen the film – which premiered this week in Washington, D.C., after months of feverish build-up — suggest that director Davis Guggenheim may be asking the right questions but leaping to the wrong answers.

Guggenheim, who won an Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary about Al Gore and climate change, tells a dramatic story of five young students who are entered in lotteries for coveted slots in charter schools – portrayed as a make-or-break gamble for their educational future. Besides the kids and their parents, its heroes include Michelle Rhee, the controversial chancellor of District of Columbia Schools, and Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone.

And Waiting for Superman isn’t just a movie. It’s a crusade, with audiences pledging to see the film and get involved, corporations pouring money into promotional activities, and Washington politicians, Hollywood types and pop music stars getting into the act. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman went all wide-eyed over the film. Multibillionaire Bill Gates and musician John Legend are among the many celebrities joining Guggenheim to promote it.

The title comes from Geoffrey Canada, who makes the point that we can’t wait for Superman to rescue us from our problems; we have to rescue ourselves. But it sounds a lot like Guggenheim, the director, is making comic-book heroes of Canada, Rhee and some cherry-picked charter schools. Continue reading

‘Last hired, first fired’ strikes again

A story in Saturday’s Bloomington Herald-Times (subscription required) provides an example of the kind of thing that gives teachers’ unions and public schools a bad name.

It’s about Scott Wallace, a science teacher in the Monroe County Community School Corp. who was selected as 2010 Indiana Teacher of the Year by the Air Force Association but lost his job with the MCCSC because of budget cuts. Wallace was placed deep on the district’s reduction-in-force list as a result of the strict seniority system – “last hired, first fired” – enshrined by the MCCSC’s contract with the local teachers’ union, the Monroe County Education Association.

The MCCSC board voted in April to put 73 teachers on the RIF list, which meant they could be laid off for the 2010-11 school year.

Dozens were called back over the summer. They included Batchelor Middle School’s Jackie Macal, one of six “outstanding Hoosier educators” honored at a Statehouse ceremony in May, Continue reading

Tony Bennett on ‘Noon Edition’ — easy listening?

Did anyone else think that Tony Bennett, the Indiana superintendent of public instruction, came across as unusually conciliatory on the WFIU radio “Noon Edition” program last Friday? There was no teacher-bashing. No school-of-education-bashing. Not even any real union-bashing.

Was Bennett striking a friendlier tone because Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, had singled out Indiana (along with Virginia and Minnesota) for failing to include teachers’ unions in its initial application for federal Race to the Top funding? Did “Noon Edition” host Bob Zaltsberg’s reasonableness rub off on his guest?

Bennett did offer some interesting comments. He said the current state of education is challenging but also rewarding. “These are definitely unique times in Indiana education,” he said. He repeated his contention Continue reading