Situation Normal

Colorado teachers unions will feel a limited impact from the Supreme Court’s Janus decision

Teachers and supporters strike in Pueblo, Colorado, earlier this year. Pueblo is one of the few Colorado teachers unions that collects fees similar to those at issue in the Janus case. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

Colorado’s teachers unions have been living in a post-Janus world for decades.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 is being widely interpreted on the left and the right as a blow to public sector unions, including teachers unions. The decision means that states and school districts will no longer be able to require their employees to pay negotiating fees to the unions that bargain on their behalf.

Nationally, this could mean fewer teachers joining unions and paying dues, leading to a loss of political power for organizations that have traditionally supported Democratic candidates. The National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers are preparing for budget and staff reductions. But with the exception of a few districts, teachers unions in Colorado don’t collect these fees.

Teacher unions exist in a legal middle ground in Colorado, with collective bargaining and the right to strike but without a formal recognition process or the ability to require non-members to pay fees that some private-sector unions have. For the most part, teachers either join the union and pay their dues or don’t join and don’t pay anything. That has limited the power of teachers unions in Colorado, but it also means the Janus decision has limited impact here.

Amie Baca-Oehlert, president-elect of the Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, looks for the positive angle behind these limitations.

“I think it has made us stronger as a state because we have to go out to individual educators and explain to them the benefits of belonging,” she said. “Explaining the strength of that solidarity has been powerful for us.”

The Colorado Education Association has roughly 35,000 members, the large majority of them classroom teachers. They represent about 64 percent of the teachers in the state.

That silver lining doesn’t mean union leaders are happy with the decision. State and local unions can expect less support from their national organizations going forward, including in key electoral contests. The decision also undoes decades of precedent that bolstered the position of public sector unions, who now make up half of all unionized workers in America.

“Our biggest concern is not the financial side of things but the ideological side of things, that this is an attack on workers and workers’ families and workers’ ability to come together and have a collective voice,” Baca-Oehlert said.

Joseph Slater, a professor at the University of Toledo’s College of Law, said the positive spin that some are trying to put on the decision – that it will force unions to become more responsive to their members and more democratic in their governance, to their long-term benefit – isn’t borne out in states that haven’t required such fees. It’s not uncommon in some states for a majority of workers to vote to unionize but for only a minority to agree to pay dues, he said.

“I’m all in favor of those things, but I’m skeptical because we have examples of states becoming right-to-work states, and we haven’t seen a significant revitalization of the labor movement,” he said. “This is going to hurt the labor movement.”

Today’s court ruling could have the most impact in Pueblo, a traditional union stronghold in Colorado, a state with a history of bloody mining strikes. Membership in the teachers union is high, and the contracts there include fees similar to the ones at stake in the Janus case.

In May, teachers in Pueblo went out on strike – the first time Colorado teachers have done so since 1994 – and secured a 2 percent raise for part of the 2017-18 school year and another 2.5 percent increase for 2018-19, among other concessions.

Suzanne Ethredge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, said 75 percent of teachers belong to the union, and while that’s down from 80 percent a few years ago, new members joined during the strike as they saw the union forcing the school board to the bargaining table.

Pueblo 60, which serves the city, and Pueblo 70, which serves the surrounding county, are among a handful of Colorado districts where the contracts include “representation fees,” a fee that’s analogous to the agency fees at issue in the Janus case.

A 1977 Supreme Court decision found that workers cannot be forced to join a union, but they can be forced to pay a fee to cover the cost of reaching collective bargaining agreements from which they benefit. Unions say this prevents a free-rider problem, while critics, including Mark Janus, a child support specialist for the state of Illinois who is the plaintiff in the case, say it impinges on their free speech because such negotiations are inherently political.

The representation fees collected in the Pueblo school districts have been part of the contracts for decades and exist for a similar purpose. Teachers can opt out of paying the fees during a window at the beginning of each school year, and some do.

Ethredge said she’s been advised that the representation fees are probably unconstitutional now, and that going forward, workers will have to opt in and will be able to join or leave the union at any point in the school year. But she anticipates a “bookkeeping nightmare” rather than a large drop in membership. The fees probably do contribute to the high rate of membership, she said, but they’re just one factor.

“We have that culture built into Pueblo, and as an association, we’ve been able to build a culture that belonging is important,” she said. “It gives you somewhere to go when something goes wrong. We’re like homeowner’s insurance. You hope you never need us, but we’re here if you do.”

She worries about the impact of the decision on the national union, which provided logistical and moral support during the strike, as well as a $15,000 grant to support the community school model, which offers a range of programming and services for families, at one district middle school.

The Pueblo strike energized teachers, but the Janus decision comes in a year when Colorado’s teachers unions have seen mixed results from their political efforts. Last November, union-backed candidates won majorities on several local school boards and made inroads on others, but the union’s preferred gubernatorial candidate in the Democratic primary, former state Treasurer Cary Kennedy, came in a distant second.

This spring, riding a wave of national activism, red-shirted union members – along with some non-unionized teachers – flexed their muscle in large rallies at the Capitol to call for more school funding, better pay, and the protection of retirement benefits. But the pension compromise adopted in the final hour of the legislative session, which raised the retirement age from 58 to 64 for new teachers, dealt the union a painful blow.

Ethredge makes no bones about it. If unions are to maintain their influence, teachers need to join – and pay their dues.

“Membership is power,” she said. “There is no getting around that.”

Who's In Charge

Who’s in charge of rethinking Manual High School’s ‘offensive’ mascot?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

As other schools in Indiana and across the nation have renounced controversial team names and mascots in recent years, Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis has held onto the Redskins.

One of the reasons why the school hasn’t given it up, officials said during a state board of education meeting this week, is because it’s unclear whose responsibility it would be to change the disparaging name.

Is it the obligation of the district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns the building and granted the nickname more than 100 years ago?

Is it the duty of the charter operator, Charter Schools USA, which currently runs the school?

Or is it the responsibility of the state, which took Manual out of the district’s hands in 2011, assuming control after years of failing grades?

“I don’t care who’s responsible for it,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry, as he acknowledged the uncertainty. “I think it’s high time that that mascot be retired.”

The mascot debate resurfaced Wednesday as state officials considered the future of Manual and Howe high schools, which are approaching the end of their state takeover. Charter School USA’s contracts to run the schools, in addition to Emma Donnan Middle School, are slated to expire in 2020, so the schools could return to IPS, become charter schools, or close.

Manual is only one of two Indiana schools still holding onto the Redskins name, a slur against Native Americans. In recent years, Goshen High School and North Side High School in Fort Wayne have changed their mascots in painful processes in which some people pushed back against getting rid of a name that they felt was integral to the identity of their communities.

Knox Community High School in northern Indiana also still bears the Redskins name and logo.

“The term Redskins can be absolutely offensive,” said Jon Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We’ve had no power or authority to do anything about that.”

He suggested that the state board needs to start the process, and that the community should have input on the decision.

An Indianapolis Public Schools official told Chalkbeat the district didn’t have clear answers yet on its role in addressing the issue.

Even if the state board initiates conversations, however, member Steve Yager emphasized that he does not want the state to make the decision on the mascot.

“We don’t have to weigh in on that,” Yager said. “I feel like that’s a local decision.”


Tennesseans reflect on Candice McQueen’s legacy leading the state’s schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks with Arlington High School students during a school visit Tuesday that kicked off a statewide tour focused on student voices.

As Candice McQueen prepares to leave her role as Tennessee education commissioner in January, education leaders, advocates, and parents are weighing in on her impact on the state’s schools.

McQueen 44, will become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching in mid-January after about four years under the outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam administration.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy. But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Here are reactions from education leaders and thinkers across the state:

Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy and programs at Conexión Américas:

“It was her commitment to transparency, equity, and strong accountability that helped create a nationally recognized framework that places students at its center. Commissioner McQueen’s commitment to inclusion and engagement meant that our partners across the state had the opportunity to weigh in, share their experiences, and to ask hard questions and conduct real conversations with policymakers. Tennessee continues to lead the nation in innovation and improvement in K-12 education, and that is due in no small part to Commissioner McQueen’s leadership.”

Shawn Joseph, superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools, who in August co-penned a letter declaring “no confidence” in state testing:

“Since joining MNPS just over two years ago, I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with Commissioner McQueen and her team. She has been a strong advocate for Tennessee’s children, and I especially want to thank her for her support of the work that is taking place in Nashville. We send her our very best wishes — and our hearty congratulations for accepting her new role.”

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee:

“Commissioner Candice McQueen is one of the most visible members of the Haslam Administration. She took over the department during a dark period in public education, and she made a significant difference within the department, particularly in the infrastructure. Those changes are not readily noticeable, as they include systems, processes and human capital. There are some exceptional people within the Department of Education working to make public education a success in our state. It is unfortunate that online testing continues to be a point of contention, but the state is moving in a positive direction. The next Commissioner of Education and the 111th Tennessee General Assembly will need to make adjustments in student assessment as we move forward.   We will always be grateful to Commissioner McQueen for her unwavering support of increasing teacher salaries and commitment to student literacy.”

Sharon Griffin, leader of the state-run Achievement School District:

“I have truly appreciated Dr. McQueen’s leadership and vision for the Department of Education.  From a distance and even closer in recent months, I have clearly seen the integrity and passion she brings to the work of improving student outcomes.  We have absolutely connected around our shared belief in how what’s in the best interest of students should guide our work.”

Jamie Woodson, CEO of SCORE:

“Tennessee students have been served very well by the steady and strong leadership of Commissioner McQueen. Her priorities have been the right ones for our children: improving student achievement, with a specific focus on reading skills; advocating for great teaching and supporting teachers to deliver high-quality instruction; and emphasizing that students and schools with the greatest needs must receive targeted focus and support in order to improve.”

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of parent advocacy group Memphis Lift:

“Memphis parents want decision makers to be accessible, and we appreciate that Commissioner McQueen made a point to build relationships and hear concerns from the entire community. Hopefully, the next education commissioner will bring parents to the table for conversations about our kids’ education.”

Mendell Grinter, leader of Memphis student advocacy group Campaign for School Equity:

“In our collaborative work and position in the educational landscape, we have witnessed firsthand how Commissioner McQueen has served as a tireless advocate for students and families in Tennessee. Over the past two years her leadership has inspired school leaders, and teachers alike to recognize the sense of urgency for improving school equity and academic outcomes for more students.”

Andy Spears, author of Tennessee Education Report and vocal critic of state test, TNReady:

“After what can charitably be called a rocky tenure at the helm of the Tennessee Department of Education, Candice McQueen has miraculously landed another high-level job. This time, she’ll take over as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, an organization apparently not at all concerned about the track record of new hires or accountability.”

Beth Brown, president of Tennessee Education Association:

“As candidates for the state’s next commissioner of education are considered, it is my hope that serious consideration is given to an individual’s experience in our own Tennessee public schools… Students and educators are struggling with two major issues that must be tackled by the next commissioner: high-stakes standardized tests and a lack of proper funding for all schools. Our schools need a leader who understands that the current test-and-punish system is not helping our students succeed. Governor Bill Haslam has made significant increases in state funding for public education, but there is still much work to be done to ensure every child has the resources needed for a well-rounded public education.”