By Timothy Sandefur
For three days now, public school employees in Arizona have refused to show up for work, as part of a protest, demanding that the government give them more taxpayer money and agree to other demands. That certainly teaches us all some important lessons.
First, this protest is illegal. These employees signed contracts just last year agreeing to work a certain number of days in exchange for a certain amount of money. Now they’re refusing to do what they promised until they get what they want. That’s wrong. If anyone else broke the rules that way, they would be punished. But public school employees know that taxpayers have no other option—so they’re taking advantage.
And that sets a dangerous precedent. Imagine if firefighters refused to put out fires, or police officers refused to arrest criminals, until they got paid more than they agreed to. And what happens next year? And the year after that?
Government employees are different than employees in the private sector. Taxpayers can’t hire someone else the way a private business can. So public employees can hold the state hostage by refusing to work as they’ve promised.
These concerns were what led Franklin Roosevelt—not exactly a right-wing conservative—to say:
The very nature and purposes of Government make it impossible for administrative officials to represent fully or to bind the employer…. The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives…. Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.
And that’s why Arizona law doesn’t allow public school employees to strike.
It’s also illegal for school employees to use their official email accounts for political purposes, or to pressure other employees on political issues. But many of them have been violating these laws in recent weeks. And it’s also illegal to go onto school property in order to interfere with its operation—but, again, many in the “Red for Ed” movement have been doing just that, confident that they won’t be punished.
But this isn’t just a legal lesson—it’s a moral one, too. Public school employees are entrusted with helping raise the next generation of Arizonans. They’re supposed to set a good example. What kind of example are they setting, when they break their promises and violate the law? This behavior isn’t just illegal, it’s wrong, and it’s shameful.
There are a lot of teachers who do want to go back into the classroom—who want to honor the contracts they signed, and teach as they said they would. But school officials aren’t letting them; they’ve closed the schools. And many teachers are afraid to say that they disagree with these illegal protests, because they know they’ll be retaliated against by their coworkers. We often tell our kids about “peer pressure,” and the dangers of bullying—but adults engage in bullying and peer pressure, too.
And is there good reason for all of this? Teacher salaries are handled by school districts, not the state. The districts get money from the state, and then decide how to spend it. Some districts do pay their teachers too little. But Red for Ed protestors aren’t protesting the districts—they’re demanding that the state give the districts more money, instead. As for education spending generally, Arizona spends a lot on schools. School districts were given about $8.7 billion last year. That’s about $1,200 for every man, woman, and child in the state. That’s a lot of money, and it all comes from taxes taken out of the paychecks of parents and even students themselves.
True, the government could spend more on schools. But increasing spending does not necessarily mean better education. Spending on public schools keeps rising—but performance does not. But even if you think government should spend more, look at how often government wastes a money on other things. Pima County, for instance, recently gave away $15 million to a private aerospace company for its own private profit. The city of Peoria gave $2.5 million to another private company. In 2011, the Cave Creek School District finished a project it was working on and had $13 million left over—but instead of putting that money into the classroom, it got the legislature to allow it to spend the money on a project that voters hadn’t even approved. (We put a stop to that.) This kind of waste is why taxpayers don’t want their taxes raised again. Often, they end up handing over another chunk of their earnings—just to see it squandered.
Still, that’s a different debate.
By refusing to work as they promised to, public school employees are violating the law and breaking their promises—and it all falls hardest on kids and parents. Some schools have said they’ll add extra days at the end of the school year to make up for these illegally lost days—but that just harms people more: It disrupts graduation plans and possibly people’s plans to report for military duties or overseas missions. But the public employees who are refusing to do their jobs as they’ve promised—well, to them, the ends justify the means.
And there’s a lot we can learn from that.
Timothy Sandefur is the vice president for litigation at the Goldwater Institute.