School Choice Is the Solution to Teacher Strikes

Opinion by Corey DeAngelis 

Under a 1973 law, public employees in Massachusetts have no right to strike. Yet there have been six local teacher strikes in the state since 2022. Why do they keep getting away with it? Because politicians refuse to hold them accountable and parents don’t feel like they have any options.

The Boston suburb of Newton was the location of the latest illegal strike. Members of the Newton Teachers Association voted on Jan. 18 to walk out of their classrooms. While the families of Newton’s 12,000 students scrambled to accommodate the unexpected school closing, the union claimed to seek a “living wage.” Yet Newton teachers already earned an average annual salary of at least $93,031—8% higher than the statewide average, according to the latest data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Teachers in Newton, as elsewhere, work about 180 days a year.

The state’s Employment Relations Board attempted to enforce the 1973 law by filing a lawsuit seeking an injunction to stop the strike. Superior Court Judge Christopher Barry-Smith acted swiftly to enjoin the strike, ordering a series of escalating fines ultimately totaling more than $600,000. The threat of financial penalty appeared to have no effect on the union, which continued to push the school district to spend an additional $53 million over the next four years. The two sides reached a tentative agreement on Feb. 2 and schools reopen on Feb. 9.

The union may or may not ultimately pay the fines. But even if it does, the money won’t compensate Newton’s families for the disruption they endured. Nor will it prevent unions from holding children’s education hostage again. Taxpayers get the short end of the stick, too, because they ultimately pay for a system that prioritizes itself at the expense of students. The fines, even if paid directly to Newton Schools, won’t cover the cost of the strike, which exceeds $1.3 million according to an affidavit filed by the school district’s chief financial and administrative officer.

This episode raises a critical question: If a legal prohibition and the threat of hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines can’t prevent teachers unions from behaving badly, what can?

Last year 17 states expanded or enacted initiatives that make money available directly to parents to spend on alternative schools or educational paths for their children. Such programs work to break education monopolies by opening opportunities to all that are ordinarily reserved for the wealthy. Had parents in Newton had this option, they would have been able to avoid the disruption the strike caused. And the unions would have a weaker incentive to behave disruptively in the first place.

A private-sector employer feels the pain of an employee strike because customers can find another place to shop for goods or services. Employees have skin in the game, too, because they risk loss of their paycheck and possibly getting fired. In the public sector, however, the customers—in this case families and children—are the only ones who feel the pain. The teachers get what they want, every time. The result is a vicious circle. Teachers unions periodically hold children’s education hostage in exchange for ransom payments from taxpayers. The unions are never fully held accountable for these disruptions. Nor do they ever allow meaningful change to the system.

The Newton Public Schools spend almost $30,000 annually on each student. Families should be able to spend that money any way and anywhere they choose. Public schools would then have an incentive to cater to the needs of the people who pay teachers’ salaries.

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Policymakers in Massachusetts and throughout the country should ensure that every child can go to school without fear of being caught in the crossfire of a labor dispute. The path forward is clear: Empower parents with choices, embrace school-choice initiatives and make children the center of the system.

Mr. DeAngelis is a senior fellow at the American Federation for Children and a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Mr. McGee is an educational freedom attorney at Liberty Justice Center.

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