The Supreme Court, in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (CTA), is now considering whether all teachers should be required to pay union determined “agency fees” for collective bargaining services, whether or not the teacher wants them. When making their case, unions would have the public believe that public school teachers stand solidly behind them. When it come to school choice, for example, CTA insists that “Teachers do not support school voucher programs, because they hurt students and schools by draining scarce resources away from public education.” But facts on the ground tell a different story.
A fifth of all public school teachers with school-age children has placed a child in a private school, and nearly three out of ten have used one or more of the main alternatives to the traditional public school— private school, charter school, and homeschooling. What is more, the teachers who exercise choice are more likely to support school choice for others, avoid union membership, and oppose agency fees.
We discovered this when we asked, as part of a nationally representative survey of the public and of public school teachers, whether those with school age children have sent them to public, private, or charter schools, or homeschooled them. The survey was conducted in June 2015 by Knowledge Networks under the auspices of Education Next, a journal for which one of us serves as editor. Altogether, we surveyed approximately 4,000 adults, including 851 parents of school-age children, 206 of whom were public school teachers. Polling details and overall results are available online at educationnext.org.
Public school teachers are much more likely to use a private school than are other parents. No less than 20% of teachers with school age children, but only 13% of non-teachers, have sent one or more of their children to private school. Teachers are also just as likely to make use of a charter school or to homeschool their child as other parents.
As insiders, teachers presumably know the truth about the level of education that is being provided. One expects employees to be loyal to the employer who sends them a regular paycheck, especially if the product being produced is of high quality. How many Apple employees are using a Samsung? How many Yankee employees root for the Mets?
Yet public school teachers are every bit as likely to have sent their children to a private school as any other parent with a four-year university degree. A fifth of both populations have reservations about their local public school. That teachers are no more loyal than other educated parents suggests that the commitment to the traditional public school is neither uniform nor unqualified.
It is true that 87% of public school teachers (and 85% of the public as a whole) have placed at least one of their children in a traditional public school. However, 25% of the public and 29% of public school teachers have used an alternative for at least one of their children for some period of time.
One public school teacher, Michael Godsey, has confessed publicly on the internet that he has chosen a private school for his children, even though he says he “superficially loathe[s]” the school for its elitism. The private school, he says, “promotes ‘personal character’ and ‘love of education,’ and the tangible difference between this environment and that at the public school in the area was stunning to me—even though I’m a veteran public-school teacher.” Presumably, many other public school teachers feel the same way.
It would be unfair to label these public school teachers who use alternatives for their own children as “hypocrites,” because a large majority of these teachers ignore union dogma. When asked whether they oppose the formation of charter schools, only 17% of them say they do. Similarly, opposition to tax credits comes from only 19% among these teachers.
School vouchers are more controversial, but even in this case 42% of the alternative-choosing teachers back vouchers, as compared to only 23% of the teachers who send their children only to public schools.
Finally, teachers are less likely to join a teacher’s union and more likely to strongly oppose the imposition of agency fees if they have chosen for their own children a school outside the district-operated system. Only 38% say they are union members. Indeed, only 51% of all teachers with school age children belong to a teachers union.
Only 39% of the teachers who have used alternatives to the public school support the imposition of an agency fee on unwilling teachers. In this respect they differ little from other teachers with school-age children; just 42% of these teachers back the agency fee. Among the public as a whole, the support level falls to 34%. fee.
In short, teachers are just as likely to send their children to a private school as other educated parents. These teachers, moreover, support similar choices for other parents and oppose agency fees currently imposed on many. If the Supreme Court finds the practice unconstitutional, a sizable share of the public school teaching force—as well as the general public–will be applauding.
Paul E. Peterson is a professor at Harvard University where he directs its Program on Education Policy and Governance (PEPG) and is editor of Education Next. He is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Samuel Barrows is a PEPG Postdoctoral fellow.