Following the Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court decision that ruled public-sector unions can no longer force nonmembers to pay agency fees, both the unions and Vermont’s teachers have some questions to reflect upon. The big one for teachers is: Are my union dues really worth it?

According to statements made to the media by Darren Allen, spokesman for the Vermont chapter of the National Education Association, the difference between the agency fee charged to nonmembers by the teachers’ union ($454) and the full union dues ($629) was just $175.  Before Janus, the question potential members had to ask themselves was, if I’m going to be forced to pay $454 anyway, is the extra $175 worth it to be a full voting member of the union? Now the question is, is that worth over $600, or am I better off just pocketing all that cash?

The unions, on the other hand, have to figure out ways to refocus their priorities and create real and perceived value for potential members.

Teachers’ unions now operate primarily as political entities focused on influencing elections with a specific partisan bias toward Democrats, which not all of their members necessarily agree with. That didn’t matter when workers of all political stripes were forced to pay up regardless. It matters now.

The union sees its power as coming from the ability to raise money and mobilize people to the polls. As such, the union benefits most by advocating for policies and legislation that expand its membership. More members mean more dues and more voters.

But this model isn’t necessarily in the best interest of teachers. In their quest to expand membership, teachers’ unions have evolved into what would more accurately be described as district employee unions, which incorporate not just teachers, but administrators and other staff. As such, the focus on teachers’ interests are diluted.

For example, most people think that classroom teachers (and, when most people think of “teachers,” they think of the people in the classroom) deserve more pay. Anyone who’s spent eight hours trying to get one kid to concentrate on a task that he or she would rather avoid can sympathize with the challenge of getting 20 kids up to speed on how to multiply fractions or diagram a sentence. The ones who are really good at this — the ones we can all look back upon as having changed our lives — are highly valuable members of society and should be so compensated.

In Vermont, we spend roughly $20,000 per pupil. Think of that number this way: If there are 20 kids in the classroom, we are spending $400,000 a year on that classroom. Where does all that money go? Not the classroom teacher’s salary. Those resources are being used to expand the number of employees outside the classroom.

Over the past few decades, the national trend has seen the number of nonteaching staff in public schools skyrocket, well out of proportion to increases to student population. The number of classroom teachers, on the other hand, has remained steady with student population growth.

In Vermont, we have the lowest student-to-staff ratio in the nation at 4:1. Total spending on K-12 has exploded too. This is good for the union — more people equals more dues and more voters — but, it’s not necessarily in the best interest of teachers. Or students, or taxpayers, for that matter. 

Teachers (and, again, students and taxpayers) would benefit more from policies that directed resources into the classroom. Unfortunately, this is a low-to-no-growth proposition for the unions because there are only so many adults you can put into a classroom and only so many kids to serve.

But, you can fill skyscrapers with backroom staff, so that’s the priority. From the union’s perspective, 10 low to moderately paid members is better than five highly paid members. Those whose compensation is being held back by this dynamic may disagree.

Putting unions in the position of having to work harder and prove value to their membership, teachers, students and taxpayers will benefit. Unions, if they’re up to the challenge, will benefit too. After all, a membership made up entirely of people who have enthusiastically volunteered to take part in an organization will be stronger than one in which a large proportion of its members were dragged in against their will. 

Rob Roper is president of the Ethan Allen Institute. He lives in Stowe.

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