By Ashleigh Costello

HARRISBURG, Penn. – The Commonwealth Foundation has introduced a new website that offers teachers an independent forum to learn about and discuss current educational issues, free from the pervasive influence of teachers unions.

The Pennsylvania-based organization launched in November after several conversations with public school teachers who expressed a desire to have an honest discussion about education and labor policy.

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Teachers don’t feel like they have a genuine voice when it comes to educational and professional issues, according to Matthew Brouillette, president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation.

“Politicians, administrators and union bosses usually speak for them, but we don’t often hear directly from teachers,” Brouillette noted.

The Commonwealth Foundation has long held that coercive union policies go against the best interests of teachers and students. Free to Teach aims to help educators understand their rights, especially as they pertain to union membership.

Getting the facts

Although geared toward Pennsylvania teachers, Free to Teach provides key information for all educators.

Teachers can visit the website to get more information on labor rights, fair share fees and professional liability insurance, among many other items.

Priya Abraham, a senior policy analyst at the Commonwealth Foundation, told EAGnews the goal is to get more educators talking and informed of their legal rights.

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“When you have for many, many years an environment where most school districts are unionized, and not only unionized but agency shops, it just sort of sinks into the way things are,” Abraham said. “In any kind of environment like that, people don’t tend to think about how things are actually working because it’s just so automatic.”

The website explains that every teacher has the right to opt out of union membership.  Pennsylvania state law generally allows school employees to resign from their union within 15 days of the expiration of their collective bargaining agreement, according to the website.

That’s not much of a window, but thanks to the website more teachers are aware that it exists. At least a few will probably take advantage of it.

Because Pennsylvania is not a right-to-work state, non-members are forced to pay fair share fees (or agency fees) to compensate the union for bargaining on their behalf.  These fees are roughly 80 percent of a full dues payment, according to the Association of American Educators.

Agency fees generate millions for union coffers and are used to help consolidate the unions’ political power and influence over education policy.

Teachers may object to fair share fees based on religious grounds, but the full refund must be donated to a non-religious charity, approved by the union.

Abraham said many teachers have been unaware of these rights.

“We’ve gotten a lot of thank yous and queries from teachers saying, ‘Oh you know, I wasn’t aware of this fact when it comes to union membership,’ or that ‘I didn’t know this was my option as a professional.’”

Where dues money goes

The website shares another fact many Pennsylvania teachers are unaware of: A significant percentage of union dues are spent on “luxury conferences, golf outings, and politics,” as well as inflated union salaries.  For example, American Federation of Teachers President Rhonda “Randi” Weingarten has an annual salary of more than $556,000, according to Free to Teach.

Teachers unions spend a lot of dues money on politics and lobbying. Between 2007 and 2011,Pennsylvania State Education Association spending on political activities rose 121 percent, according to Free to Teach.

Last year, the PSEA spent $4.2 million on lobbying and election-related activities, according to the website. Most of the election dollars went to support Democratic candidates, regardless of whether rank-and-file members supported them or not.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about the political spending issue because we hear back from educators and union members who say that dues money cannot be used for politics, period.  That’s just not true,” said Abraham.

Although dues money cannot go directly to fund election campaigns, there are a number of soft political activities that are funded by members’ dues, like election mailers and get-out-the-vote efforts, said Abraham.

That could someday change.

A recent poll commissioned by the Manhattan Institute found that 72 percent of Pennsylvania voters support a right-to-work law, which would make forced unionism and all forms of mandatory dues payments illegal.

“Once union membership becomes genuinely voluntary, unions have a lot more legwork to do actually proving their value to their members,” explained Abraham. “It’s not as easy as getting the money [automatically] from bank accounts.”

PESA will have to explain to its members why it advocates for certain policies, such as “last in, first out” layoff rules which are harmful to younger teachers and students.

As for the unions’ claim that right-to-work laws allow non-members to have a free ride, Abraham said that teachers unions don’t have to represent those employees who aren’t actually union members.

“Look, it’s not rocket science to say that union membership should be voluntary and you shouldn’t have to pay any kind of fee or dues to a union just to keep your job as an educator,” said Abraham. “That’s just fundamental and basic.”

While no legislation is currently on the table, Abraham said the Commonwealth Foundation would support a right-to-work law.