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Commentary: Failed bill a blow to teacher freedom

Veteran Poudre schoolteacher Cally Stockton bemoans the demise of a bill that would have let teachers cancel union membership at any point during the school year.

I have been a teacher in the Poudre School District for the past eight years.  I was a union member, in the Colorado Education Association (CEA) and local affiliate Poudre Education Association (PEA), for my first three years as a teacher because I was led to believe there wasn’t a choice.

I became dissatisfied with some of the union’s positions, which I believe set up roadblocks to improving collaboration and instruction, and I discovered that other associations existed that could provide professional support, as well as legal and liability insurance. When I tried to end my membership in the union, I was told that I had missed that small window of opportunity and was forced to continue paying dues and be counted as a member against my will for the rest of the year.

I am a voting Democrat and although I understand the past role of the teachers’ union, I believe very strongly in my right to choose my affiliations and my need to make decisions that fit my values and finances.

I know that historically many politicians, especially Democrats, feel that they need to support teachers’ unions.  But I believe they should support all associations and all teachers, no matter the organization they choose.

House Bill 12-1333, which passed the state House of Representatives, was unfortunately voted down in the Senate on Thursday. This bill would have respected teachers’ right to cancel their union membership at any time during the year. It would have been inspiring to see policymakers stand up for teachers like me, but they instead voted in favor of the powerful special interests.

Almost every membership in our free market gives the consumer the right to stop their membership if the services are not meeting their needs.  The service provider then has to listen to its customer and work harder to keep them satisfied. This should be no different for teachers unions.

I believe this policy will actually make the union a better organization for those who choose to belong to it because union leaders will have to be more responsive to their members.  Currently members who have concerns are held captive by the union.

According to the PEA annual reports, membership has been dropping, from over 75 percent a few years ago, to 70 percent in 2010, and 66 perent in 2011. I am sure that if more teachers knew about the alternatives like the non-union, nonpartisan Professional Association of Colorado Educators (PACE), and were able to make membership decisions at any time during the year, CEA and PEA would have to do more to prove their worth to retain members.  Unions should not be protected by a special loop hole that holds members captive.

Further, teachers should also have the right to share information about other associations in the forums that PEA and CEA now control. For example, I was not allowed to share information about PACE at the new teacher orientation since PEA has the “exclusive bargaining contract” in my district. However, PACE is not a bargaining entity and does not seek to become such. I believe that all teachers deserve to know about all of their options.

Currently, our payroll department withholds dues for union members, but will not provide this service to me or my chosen association. This is just another example of unfair treatment.

While our state and nation focus increasingly on improving education and instruction, teachers need to have more choices for their professional affiliation.  They must be allowed to align themselves with the organization that best matches their belief system regarding the future of the profession and the education of students.

I made a career change to become a teacher, taking a huge cut in pay from my job as a hospital department manager.  I love what I do and I have a passion for excellence in education.  I work very hard to earn the trust and respect of my students, their parents, and my community.

Our district operates as a “school of choice” district.  Parents can move a student to a different school at any time. As a school we cannot and should not tell a dissatisfied student or parent that they are stuck in a school that is not meeting their needs.  Similarly, teachers need options and deserve the same basic freedom of choice.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.