As a veteran educator, I believe in the power of choice across the board for parents, students, and teachers. I teach my students that people should have the right to choose the pathway best for them. However, teachers many times don’t have the right to choose the external support they receive professionally through either a union or professional education organization.
Teachers should have the right to choose if a union or non-union professional organization best serves them. During my tenure in education, I have been part of both entities. In my later years, my membership and engagement with a non-union professional organization has been better. However, each offers benefits.
I exercised choice in 2016 when I exited the traditional public school system to become a school administrator at a charter school. I became a member of a professional education organization because I knew my professional development was important. Even when I later returned to the traditional public school system, I remained connected to the non-union professional organization.
It was a major move to go from a union to a professional education organization. Traditionally, educators are conditioned to join a union because that is what is expected. However, union engagement and meeting the needs of all teachers can vary.
Many teachers who are challenging racist policies in schools are unfortunately having to exit the school system. Educators are finding non-union professional organizations to provide better options after they exit and seek employment in non-traditional schools. Educators, from novice to veteran, get stuck in automatic renewal fees of unions that may not align with their beliefs or needs and then they’re cast out of the school system.
Over the years, I’ve learned that a lot of educators are unaware that in 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) that public employees cannot be required to join a union or pay union dues as a condition of employment, ending “agency fees” for non-members. This ruling came right before the pandemic. The pandemic left teachers in situations where some were penalized for taking time off for COVID-19 related issues.
I believe helping teachers and educators navigate the educational system is just as important as the work needed to help parents do the same. Teachers are most at risk of being negatively impacted by bureaucratic policies that often police them just as much as the students. Many times, teachers aren’t even aware of the barriers that prevent them from having a choice such as lack of engagement about their needs and the educational politics the organization supports.
Lack of engagement with educators is a huge barrier. The clear transfer of information to educators regarding unions unfortunately needs to be a requirement.
Politics play a major role in the barriers educators have regarding having a choice in a union or professional organization to represent and support them. Having been in leadership, I’ve been in enough meetings to see how influential politics are in deciding who will best represent the interests of the system over the interest of the educator.
This is why I firmly believe in choice. Depending on the need of the educator, it should wholeheartedly be their decision if they choose a union or professional organization regardless of the special interests of the school system.
Jason B. Allen is a veteran educator in Atlanta, Georgia and a fellow of the American Association of Educators Advocacy Program.