janus v. AFSCME

Supreme Court decision in Janus deals blow to nation’s teachers unions

Teachers unions absorbed a deep but expected blow on Wednesday from the nation’s highest court.

The 5-4 ruling in the case, Janus v. AFSCME Council 31, means that states and school districts will no longer be able to require their employees to pay negotiating fees to the unions that bargain on their behalf. That could mean a steep decline in union membership and dues, which in turn will limit the unions’ political power — the hope of the conservative groups that helped bring the case.

“We conclude that public-sector agency-shop arrangements violate the First Amendment,” wrote Justice Samuel Alito in the majority opinion. He emphasized that employees must also affirmatively opt in to union membership, potentially making unions’ efforts to keep members even more challenging.

In a sharply worded dissent, Justice Elena Kagan warned: “Across the country, the relationships of public employees and employers will alter in both predictable and wholly unexpected ways.”

“Judicial disruption does not get any greater than what the Court does today,” Kagan wrote.

Unions have been preparing for this outcome, which seemed like an inevitability after Donald Trump won the presidential election. That gave him the opportunity to replace Antonin Scalia, whose unexpected death led to the 4-4 tie in a similar case two years ago.

Publicly, teachers unions have put on a brave face while acknowledging the challenges this decision would bring. Twenty-two states currently allow unions to collect those agency fees.

“Don’t count us out,” American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten tweeted after the decision’s release. “While today the thirst for power trumped the aspirations and needs of communities and the people who serve them, workers are sticking with the union because unions are still the best vehicle working people have to get ahead.”

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, has planned for staff cutbacks in anticipation of the ruling and projects that 300,000 members will leave. In California, unions have gotten laws passed designed to help keep teachers in the fold, including ensuring school districts provide unions with teacher contact information and opportunities to meet with new members. In New York City, the powerful United Federation of Teachers, which counts nearly 200,000 members, has knocked on thousands of classroom doors to tell teachers about the case and persuade them to stick with the union.

“Our union will remain strong, and we will not be silenced,” UFT President Michael Mulgrew said Wednesday.

The decision will have less of an impact in the 28 where mandatory fees were already banned, like Tennessee.

To critics who say teachers unions have been a barrier to school reform efforts, the case presents another opportunity to push for their vision. Those critics include Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who has assailed unions as “defenders of the status quo.”

A number of states, including Wisconsin and Michigan, have worked to cripple unions in a manner consistent with Janus. In both states, union membership has dropped and union dues have fallen, though significantly more so in Wisconsin than Michigan. “We’re already in a post-Janus world,” a union spokesperson in Michigan recently told Chalkbeat.

Research subsequently found that in Wisconsin, where new laws severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt out of unions, student achievement suffered and teacher compensation fell. In Michigan, weaker unions and tougher evaluations led to a spike in teachers turnover in disadvantaged schools, another study found.

The decision comes as teachers across the country are increasingly energized politically: running for office, pushing for higher salaries, and protesting DeVos.

“It’s like the best of times and the worst of times,” said Weingarten in Education Week.

That suggests that if Janus weakens unions in a way that means that they can’t bargain for higher pay, it could encourage the kind of teacher uprisings and strikes recently seen in states like Oklahoma, Arizona, and West Virginia to spread.

The legal case turned on the First Amendment: plaintiff Mark Janus, a child support specialist employed by the state of Illinois, argued that requiring him to pay union fees amounted to forcing him to support a political organization, violating his free speech rights. Janus is not required to join the union, and public employees like him can instead choose to pay “agency fees” to cover bargaining costs rather than full union membership costs. Unions argue that this avoids a free-rider problem, where workers can benefit from union contract negotiation without paying for it; Janus argued that such negotiations are inherently political.

In a unanimous 1977 case, the Supreme Court ruled that although government can’t make employees join a union, they can require payment of agency fees. Today’s decision overrules that case.

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Raising teacher pay likely to be at the forefront for Indiana lawmakers and advocates in 2019

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Colorado teachers rallied for more education funding on April 27, 2018.

Indiana lawmakers and education advocates are making raises for teachers a priority for the upcoming legislative session.

As top lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — prepare to craft the next two-year state budget, they have been in talks about how money could be set aside for teachers and other educators. But it’s unclear how much of a pay hike is on the table or how the dollars would get from the state to teacher paychecks.

“The governor’s office and both Republican caucuses are seriously looking at this as an issue,” said Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican who chairs the House Education Committee. “If we’re focused on really making (teaching) more of a profession, you can’t do it by grants here, grants there. People need to see the opportunity.”

While Indiana’s teacher pay has not fallen as dramatically as it has in other states, salaries are down from 2009 when adjusted for inflation. The average teacher salary in 2018 was $54,846, down about 4.5 percentage points from nine years earlier, according to data from the National Education Association teachers union. An analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Council of Community and Economic Research ranks Indiana 18th highest in the nation for teacher salaries adjusted for cost of living.

Teacher pay has been central to education policy debates in 2018 across the nation, with teachers in several cities staging walkouts and protests to urge officials in their states to increase funding for classrooms. Indiana teachers have not gone on strike, but the national uproar around funding and teacher compensation has been felt among Hoosier educators — especially as schools across the state struggle to hire enough qualified teachers. In Indianapolis Public Schools, raising teacher pay was the driving motivation behind asking voters to approve a tax increase of $220 million over eight years.

“I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone who said they’re fully staffed in special education,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “But if you get them and you can’t keep them because they can’t pay bills, and they have no hope of having a family or getting a house … they’re going to look elsewhere.”

It’s too early to know how lawmakers would approach raises logistically for the state’s more than 71,000 public school teachers or how much they’re willing to support, but there does seem to be some initial consensus that the increases should go to base salaries, not just stipends as previous efforts have involved.

“We need to look at how do we make a significant impact to the base for all teachers,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, a Democrat from northwest Indiana. “That’s where we’re going now, to figure out what’s a sustainable method to fund this — not just for one or two years, but ongoing.”

In previous years, the state has set aside a few million dollars at a time for teacher bonuses or stipends for teaching advanced courses or subjects in shortage areas, such as science, math, and special education. The state’s pool for merit pay raises this year for teachers rated effective and highly effective is $30 million, amounting to typically small bumps for teachers.

But a noticeable raise for every teacher in the state would cost many millions of dollars, a considerable undertaking at a time when state revenue has been shrinking and competition among lawmakers and agencies to get a slice of state funding is high.

It’s also unclear if the money for raises would be figured into the state’s school funding formula or as a separate line item. It could be especially complicated because in Indiana, there are no common teacher pay guidelines. Each district or charter school creates its own pay scale, which often involves union negotiations as well.

Lawmakers and advocates alike say they expect this to be a top issue for the legislature. Still, any proposal to increase teacher pay would be competing with other issues — chief among them increasing funding for the Department of Child Services. Earlier this year, the resignation of the agency’s director set off a major review of its staffing and caseload, stretched further by the number of children needing services because of Indiana’s opioid crisis.

Teacher salaries could also square off against other education issues, such as school safety improvements and initiatives to increase class offerings in science and math.

In Indianapolis Public Schools, district officials have been stressing the need to increase teacher pay — a key lever to convincing voters to pass a property tax increase to raise an additional $220 million for the district over eight years. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said he’s also been having conversations with lawmakers about potential ways that the state could address the problem.

“They appreciate the need to address the teacher shortage, and they understand it’s an issue not only impacting Indianapolis Public Schools but it’s also an issue that’s statewide,” Ferebee told Chalkbeat two weeks ago.

Teacher hiring has continued to be a struggle for districts across the state, a survey from an Indiana State University professor said. Of the 220 districts surveyed, 91 percent said they’d had trouble filling jobs, with special education, science, and math being the hardest to fill.

According to state data, Indiana issued licenses to 4,285 new teachers in 2018, down slightly from 5,016 in 2017 and 4,566 in 2016. A survey conducted by the Indiana Department of Education reported 88 percent of educators who responded were unsatisfied with their pay, and it was the reason most frequently given for leaving the teaching profession.

“Based on conversations with some lawmakers, based on what’s going on across the country, I think our lawmakers have seen there’s reform fatigue,” Meredith said. “Let the dust settle and figure out how we come back and demonstrate respect for teachers.”

In other states where lawmakers have approved statewide teacher pay raises, the process has differed. Oklahoma raised the salary floor for all teachers, with an average increase of $6,100 per year. The state budgeted more than $425 million for the salary increases, which are to be covered by new higher taxes on cigarettes, cigars, and gas. In West Virginia, a nine-day strike ultimately led lawmakers to increase pay for all public employees by 5 percent.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has not yet weighed in on whether he would support a statewide teacher raise, but Behning said he’d been in conversations with the governor’s office. Indiana’s next legislative session begins in January.