Bill Bennett, Karen Nussle: Supreme Court's Janus decision could change everything for our schools and kids

In 20 to 30 years, we may look back on this week as the turning point when everything changed for America’s teachers and their students. That’s because the Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that individuals who disagree with a union’s political activity will no longer be forced to pay dues to the union

The 5-4 high court decision in the case of Janus v. AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) is a landmark victory for the First Amendment rights of 5 million public sector employees in 22 states. In addition, a great opportunity for serious school reform may be a consequence as well.

The Supreme Court ruling may mark a watershed moment when teachers begin to take their profession back, forever changing the trajectory of America’s public school system and the students it serves.

Mark Janus, a public-sector employee from Illinois, grew weary of being forced to pay for liberal union-directed activities with which he disagreed. The Supreme Court agreed with his position.

The Supreme Court ruling may mark a watershed moment when teachers begin to take their profession back, forever changing the trajectory of America’s public school system and the students it serves.

In the most dramatic part of the decision, it will no longer be assumed that public employees are members of a union unless they take action to opt out. Rather, the Supreme Court stated that employees will start their jobs as non-members of a union and must take an action if they want to join a union – they must opt in.

The court’s clear and affirmative consent requirement means that government employees will have the ultimate choice about whether to join – or not join – a labor union from the outset of their employment.

For decades, public school teachers and other administrative officials have faced the burden of – and pressure to conform to – unionized ideology. Many thoughtful policy innovations have been stifled by collective bargaining agreements.

And rather than focus on reforms that would benefit teachers and students in the classroom, too often teachers groups focused their energies on how their “agency fees” could be used to fund political activities.

Starting now, teachers no longer face burdensome financial obligations and the coercion of being forced to support policies with which they disagree. They now have the freedom to work in new ways to pioneer and innovate state and local policies that can positively affect our children, schools and communities.

Teachers will no longer have to verify that their approaches or policy ideas conform to the national union views, which are often out of touch with the climate and needs of our communities. Simply put, teachers can take the profession back and establish themselves as the local experts they have always been.

Parents and students can take this Supreme Court ruling in the Janus case as an occasion to work with local leaders to develop practices as a community around teacher professionalism, high quality curriculum, and school accountability measures.

Decisions can now be generated by local educators and members of the community, and not by national political groups focused on which politicians they favor.

Still, there is no denying the political consequences of the Supreme Court decision. Public sector unions are the heart and soul of the Democratic Party. With the diminution of funding the nexus of political power will change. But that is not what we focus on here. We need more focus on education, less on politics.

As school resumes in the fall, teachers, districts, and state leaders will have an opportunity to rethink the decades-old collective bargaining agreement mentality that has resulted in policies that have failed students. Teachers have an opportunity to lead the transformation of local school systems with the newfound freedom this Supreme Court decision gives them.

We encourage local education leaders to embrace this high court’s decision and seek to challenge schools and districts to think in new ways. Unions have always suppressed free speech, but more importantly, they have hindered innovation and thoughtful community involvement in schools for decades.

We believe the decision in the Janus case can mark a pivotal turning point in advancing fundamental values in public education involving issues such as local control, parental choices, school improvement and accountability systems, and quality content. Everything should be focused on ensuring that all students receive a high-quality education.

Karen Nussle is the executive director of Conservative Leaders for Education