The Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case in California has called into question the rights of teachers unions to tax members for dues, by making routine deductions from their pay, to cover union expenses. For example, what would happen if teachers working in a public school, refused to pay dues or other costs, and decided to forego union membership? Could the union extract the dues and collect the funds automatically, like a tax system does? For regardless of a teacher’s membership in the teachers union, the teacher gains the increases in salaries and benefits, and other privileges and protections of the union – simply by being a teacher in the bargaining district: the classic “free rider” economics problem.
Yet, does forcing teachers to join a teachers union, when they are employed in the district, violate the “right to associate freely?” Or of course, a teacher could declare “not to be in the teachers union,” but (1) the system will still extract the dues and charges from their salaries; and (2) they still receive pay raises, better benefits, and protections that their union colleagues
A ruling in favor of Friedrichs would have additional implications for traditional public schools as well as colleges and universities. A victory by the plaintiffs could also result in K to 12 schools, colleges, and universities losing their ability to charge universal fees to all enrolled students. These universal fees include but are not limited to computer, student government association, and participation (e.g., extra-curricular, athletics, band, and orchestra) fees. Like compulsory union dues, these fees are charged to all students regardless of whether they participate in or benefit from the activity. Like the union dues, students are not permitted to opt out.
Like “agency shop” laws governing union members, students (or their parents) are required to pay these fees as condition of attending the school, college, or university. While some students for example may participate in school athletics, most do not, but are often required to pay universal fees covering athletics. Similarly, some students attending a university may participate in student activities, many do not, yet all are required to pay the universal fee.
Should the plaintiffs prevail the ruling might hold that schools, colleges, and universities compelling the payment of universal fees violate the rights to freedom of speech and association. If all universal fees are made voluntary or struck down, schools, colleges, and universities would need to find alternative revenue streams to make up for the lost fees. If schools increase property taxes and colleges, and universities increase tuition to make up for these lost fees, taxpayers and parents might resist. K to 12 schools, colleges and universities could provide opt in provisions enabling students and their parents to voluntarily pay for fees. K to 12 schools, colleges, and universities would then need to mount marketing campaigns hoping per pressure results in more families opting to pay fees.
With property taxes and tuition already at historically high levels, push back by taxpayers and parents might weaken public support for the funding of traditional public schools and public colleges and universities. At the K to 12 traditional public school level parents might be more inclined to send the children to charter and religious schools or perhaps vote with their feet and move to a lower cost district. Should colleges and universities increase tuition costs to offset lost fee revenue, parents might demand more financial aid to offset tuition increases or select other colleges and universities. Whatever the ruling, the implications for K to 12 schools, colleges, and universities will be profound. In advance of the ruling, K to 12 schools, colleges and universities should have contingency plans in place to offset lost fee revenues should the decision favor the plaintiffs.