Give Teachers the Freedom to Choose

Note: This guest commentary by Lawrence County public school teacher John Cress was published in the Beaver County Times, the Centre Daily Times, and the Times-News.

Helping a student work through a math problem and seeing the process finally click for the first time is an incredible adrenaline rush. It’s why I do my job. I’ve taught math, social studies, and special education in Lawrence County’s Ellwood City School District for five years now.

But recently I had a career crisis: I chose to leave my union. I think the taxpayers who pay my salary—and the salaries of tens of thousands of teachers like me—should know why.

Let teachers worry about teaching; let politicians worry about politics. That’s been my mantra throughout my career as an educator. But, sadly, most public school teachers in Pennsylvania don’t have that luxury.

I’m represented by a teachers’ union whether I want their help or not. Most school districts in the state are organized this way, and I took the job knowing it. But what I didn’t know was that the union would withhold dues money out of my paycheck every month, like taxes, and spend it on political ads and causes that turn my stomach.

I’d always been told that union dues can’t be used for politics—and I believed it. But the truth is written in the Pennsylvania State Education Association’s (PSEA) magazine called The Voice for Education. Last June, the magazine featured a notice saying that up to 12 percent of members’ dues would be spent on political activity and lobbying in a single school year.

As a math teacher, I can tell you that’s a lot of money: It comes out to more than $7 million or the average salaries of 116 classroom teachers. That should be an eye-opener for teachers and taxpayers—it sure was for me.

That money can’t be given directly to political candidates, but it can be used for things like a five-page spread in The Voice endorsing state Treasurer Rob McCord for governor and asking teachers to donate to the PSEA’s political action fund. Such donations can, and were, then given to McCord.

I don’t know about you, but I like to make my own choices as to how my money is used for politics.

During my first four years of teaching, I was never told that it’s possible to opt out of dues and pay a lesser, though still significant, “fair share” fee. The union actively tries to block this information from teachers, many of whom—like me—would opt-out if made aware of the choice.

What’s worse is that taxpayers are collecting the PSEA’s political money for them. That’s because members’ dues, non-members’ “fair share” fees, and even campaign contributions are deducted from teachers’ paychecks using public payroll systems.

I appreciate the sacrifices local residents make via property taxes to help support public education. But I don’t think taxpayers should be further burdened by subsidizing union politics.

I opted out of union dues—but still must pay the union itself—because they were using my money to fund their partisan politics. In the case of the National Education Association, this extended to donations to abortion provider Planned Parenthood and the Daily Kos, a political website that disparages my beliefs and values.

Imagine if teachers’ money—collected by taxpayers—was given to the National Rifle Association or to Gov. Tom Corbett’s reelection campaign. There would be justifiable outrage. But many voices that would defend teachers like me in those cases stand silent because they agree with teachers’ union politics.

Teachers can decide on their own who to vote for and what political causes to fund. I want lawmakers to empower me, other like-minded teachers, and taxpayers to stand up to the schoolyard bullies who think they’re entitled to a cut of my paycheck to push political propaganda.

In the end, I just want to focus on helping you help your kids reach their fullest potential, to be future scientists and engineers—even math teachers—without having to worry about whether my own money is being used against me.

The solution, called paycheck protection, would prevent government unions from using taxpayer resources to collect their political money. It would give teachers and other public employees more freedom to choose how their money is spent on politics—something we should have had all along.

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John Cress is a teacher in Lawrence County’s Ellwood City School District.