School Choice & Charters

How the Janus Decision Could Fuel the Growth of Charter Schools and Vouchers

By Arianna Prothero — June 28, 2018 5 min read
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Will teachers’ unions be able to beat back efforts to expand charter schools and other school choice policies? Will school choice backers now have the upperhand when it comes to pushing their issues in statehouses and local school districts?

These are important—if less high-profile—questions to consider in the wake of the the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME that unions can no longer collect fees from workers who decide not to join them. The ruling is widely expected to erode the political dominance of teachers’ unions in the realm of education politics.

But just how much the decision diminishes the unions’ clout won’t be clear right away,

“The simple narrative that [Janus] makes the unions weaker may prove to be correct,” said Rick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “But so many times these kinds of reforms ... have consequences that are different than what people expected.”

We’re likely to see just how the narrative plays out in the bruising arena of school choice and electoral politics, where teachers’ unions have long been the primary opposition to efforts to expand charter schools and vouchers at the ballot box.

Teacher Unions versus Ed Reformers

Teachers’ unions, with deep coffers and substantial organizing power, were major forces in defeating recent efforts to install school choice-friendly candidates and policies in California, Colorado, and Massachusetts. But they faced formidable opponents from pro-school choice backers with deep pockets of their own: the Walton family, (whose patriarch founded Walmart), Eli Broad (a billionaire who made his money through construction and insurance), Michael Bloomberg (the billionaire former mayor of New York City), Reed Hastings (the cofounder and CEO of Netflix), and the Koch brothers (who own the second largest private company in America).

Teachers’ unions went toe-to-toe with those funders over a Massachusetts ballot initiative in 2016 to raise the statewide cap on charter schools, in school board elections in Douglas County, Colo. and Los Angeles in 2017, and in the California primary race for governor in June.

Despite spending tens of millions, charter supporters prevailed in only one of those races: the Los Angeles school board race.

But with teachers’ unions set up to potentially hemorrhage money and members post-Janus, what will they prioritize when they have fewer resources? And what will billionaire school-choice supporters prioritize now that their key opposition has been hobbled?

“If the [National Education Association] has $50 million less to spend in a two-year cycle, do [union members] want them to focus on a narrower set of issues?” said Hess. “Which means maybe the union will have less time and energy to spend to fight charter schooling.”

Unions may choose to drop fights against charter school and voucher expansion and focus their energy on issues like testing that have strong support from parent groups.

But the opposite could also come true. Unions could choose to use their more-limited resources to double down on their opposition to school choice, said Sarah Reckhow, a political science professor at Michigan State University.

“What we’re seeing so far doesn’t necessarily point to an obvious pattern that, ok, now we’ll spend less money on politics. They could prioritize politics and actually spend more money on it,” said Reckhow.

She pointed to research in Michigan and Wisconsin, states that passed “right-to-work” laws that stipulate that unions cannot charge employees who do not want to belong to the union “fair-share” fees. In those states, teacher union membership and funding from dues dropped after the laws were passed. But that didn’t mean political spending did.

The teachers’ union in “Wisconsin actually increased campaign contributions per candidates,” said Reckhow. “The unions could still say, ‘well, campaigns are really our priority and now we’re under pressure, and the local level is still a level where we can fight.’”

Charter Schools May Be Targeted for Unionizing

Technically, “agency” or “fair share” fees that unions can no longer collect were used for collective bargaining efforts and organizational support. Membership dues also help fund member services, as well as some political activity like lobbying. Money that unions raise that would have normally gone into their war chests might have to be redirected to support their core services when they can no longer rely on agency fees and have fewer dues-paying members. In other words, money is fungible, both Reckhow and Hess said, and fewer funds from both agency fees and dues will ultimately mean less cash for political campaigns.

Outside the political realm, the Janus ruling could have another potential impact on charter schools. Teachers’ unions may decide to put more efforts into organizing charter school teachers, the vast majority of which are not unionized, said Reckhow and Hess.

Charter schools were founded more than 25 years ago on the idea that freedom from government bureaucracy and union rules would give schools more flexibility to innovate—contributing in large part to the political rift we see today between unions and charter schools.

An individual charter school with a staff of 30 teachers may not be worth the effort to organize, said Hess. And those make up the majority of charter schools in the country.

But a growing share of charter schools in the country belong to larger networks such as KIPP, IDEA Public Schools, and Success Academy. Unions have already been making inroads into charter school networks, some of which have swelled to include more than two dozen schools.

And without as mighty an opponent as deep-pocketed unions, Janus might alter the funding priorities among the charter sector’s patrons, said Jeffrey Henig, a political science professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

“At least some of the support for the reformer side—the school choice side for example—has been animated by the belief that these steps are needed to curb the power of the unions,” he said. “There’s a chance that some of [the funders] may say ‘ok, now that the Supreme Court has taken care of that problem, I don’t need to give money out of my pocket to fight the unions anymore, I can give it to some other issues I care about.’ So, there could that kind of a backflow that has some negative impact on charters.”

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Photo by J. Scott Applewhite/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Charters & Choice blog.