Noelani Kahapea Opinion: Teachers Need More Freedom to Celebrate this National Employee Freedom Week

This week, educators across the country observe National Employee Freedom Week, a national effort to inform public-sector employees about their right to choose which type of association membership — if any — is right for them.

But for too many teachers across the country, this freedom is being limited and so there is less to celebrate.

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. Prior to this ruling, certain states allowed employee associations to charge non-members agency fees, essentially forcing them to fund causes that didn’t align with their values.

Although Janus v. AFSCME was a big step forward for educators’ rights, many still face barriers to exercising those rights. In over 40 states, unions still place restrictions on educators trying to exercise their rights and disaffiliate, forcing these teachers to pay hundreds of dollars to an organization they do not want to support.

That is correct. Despite a settled, constitutionally-guaranteed freedom to choose whether or not to join a union, most teachers’ unions across the country are restricting teachers’ ability to make their own decisions about union membership.

These restrictions most often come in the form of “opt-out windows,” which limit when an educator can opt out to certain times of the year — and they’re often extremely difficult to find.

In some cases, these opt out windows are as short as two weeks at the beginning of the school year, when teachers are busy setting up their classrooms and preparing for their students. Other times, the window is based on hire date, or the date a teacher signed the form joining the union.

For example, in California, the opt out window listed on the California Federation of Teachers membership form is “not less than 30 days and not more than 45 days before… the annual anniversary date of this agreement.” Not only is this confusing and difficult to calculate, most educators won’t remember when they signed this form, which is usually buried underneath pages of onboarding paperwork and not readily available.

In some states there is even an inconsistency between the opt-out windows at the local and state level unions. For example, in Georgia, the opt-out window listed for the Georgia Association of Educators is between September 1 and September 30. But, if you join through certain locals, like Gwinnett County Association of Educators or Steward County Education Association, the opt-out period is between August 1 and August 31. Since educators are usually required to belong to the local, and the state and national affiliates, which window is a Georgia educator supposed to follow?

In short, opt-out windows are seemingly set arbitrarily — and that seems to be on purpose.

Unless a teacher happens to make this decision at the exact right time, and then figures out how to opt out before the opt-out window ends, that teacher must continue to pay hundreds of dollars in membership dues to an organization they do not wish to be a part of — and that may be actively advocating for policies they deeply oppose — for another year.

And once an educator joins a teachers union, their membership automatically renews every year until they retire or leave the profession.

Making it even more frustrating for educators, most unions do not post these dates, let alone notify their members that the opt-out window is approaching. Unless a teacher has a copy of their membership form, knows to check it for their opt-out window, and remembers to submit it during that period, it could take years to successfully opt-out of union membership.

These practices are disrespectful to the highly educated professionals we entrust to educate our children — and they directly contradict the law of the land.

Encouragingly, some states are working to make it easier for educators to exercise their association rights at any time. In 2021, Indiana passed a law that enables an educator to leave the union at any time, eliminating opt-out windows in the entire state. Florida state law also requires opt-out requests to be processed within 30 days of receipt.

Association membership should be active, informed, and, above all, voluntary. Unfortunately, hundreds of thousands of educators are currently subject to senseless opt-out windows, and thusly compulsory union membership. This National Employee Freedom Week, we must stand up for teachers and encourage states to live up to the promise of freedom guaranteed in our constitution.

Only then can we truly observe this week dedicated to freedom.

Noelani Kahapea is the director of policy and strategic partnerships at the Association of American Educators. This piece originally ran at RealClearPolicy.

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