by Timothy Sandefur

Government employees in Arizona who disagreed with the outcome of the democratic process decided this week to break the state’s laws, closing down schools and violating the state Constitution and their own promises to work, until they got their way, instead. What could possibly go wrong?

It’s not just parents and kids who’ve been suffering. Teachers who were willing to honor their contractual obligations to work, and to respect the law, were not allowed to. And yet now districts are planning to force them to work extra time to make up for the fact that district officials chose to close schools—in some cases, despite the fact that a majority of teachers voted to remain on the job or to return to work. In Chandler, for example, where teachers agreed to go back earlier this week, district officials decided instead to keep all the schools closed. As a result, conscientious teachers who wanted to do their jobs as the law requires will end up being punished by having to work extra days or give up pay.

Because Arizona law forbids public school teachers from striking, district officials and teachers colluded to manufacture a legalistic excuse to shut down. Teachers coordinated their “personal time” days so as to make it impossible to open some schools—with support from district officials, such as those in Tempe, who changed their employment policies so as to no longer require teachers to provide doctors’ notes if they called in sick three days in a row.

Teacher union lawyers claimed in a letter to the Attorney General that this trick made it all perfectly legal. But that’s not true. Arizona law forbids teachers from engaging in “unprofessional conduct,” and coordinating leave days in an effort to paralyze the state’s education system—not to mention the conduct of district officials who encouraged and facilitated this unlawful strike—is unprofessional conduct which warrants disciplinary action. An illegal strike is still illegal, even if you call it by some other name. Another example of such semantic games: the letter claimed that this was not a strike because teachers weren’t trying to “gain a concession from the[ir] employer.” But of course, government employees are employed by the government, and the protests were against the government. Using euphemisms doesn’t transform this illegal strike into anything else.

Abraham Lincoln once said that it was not possible to get the average person to applaud illegality and injustice except “by an insidious debauching of the public mind.” Only by “invent[ing] an ingenious sophism” that teaches people that illegal actions are really okay, could people be led to obstruct the democratic process and violate the rights of their fellow citizens. The unions’ word games are a perfect example of that.

There’s no doubt that there are major finance and budgeting issues across Arizona’s 240 school districts, and that many teachers are underpaid in those poorly-managed districts. But these are local budgeting decisions made by locally-elected school board members. The newly-adopted budget provides that Arizona taxpayers will spend an additional $500 million in schools this year, and over $1 billion over the next four years, on top of the more than $7 billion per year they were already spending. How that money is spent—salaries, and so forth—remains a decision made at the local level, not the state level. If these protests had really been about teacher pay, they would have been aimed at the districts. But they weren’t—because in reality these protests were overseen, facilitated, and encouraged by the districts, to get more money to spend as they wish.

As public servants, school district employees owe a special obligation to students, parents, and taxpayers to work within our political and legal system to effect change—not to break the law to get what they want. Genuine protest movements and even civil disobedience are treasured parts of our system of free speech—but not when government employees do it. Illegal action by government employees demanding that the legislature do what they want is a dangerous and undemocratic idea. Imagine if firefighters or police officers or members of the military decided that the people’s elected representatives weren’t paying them enough, and adopted similar tactics until they got their way. We would not call that a healthy democratic society.

School districts have a constitutional duty to provide kids with an education, and to enforce state law—including employment contracts—to ensure that schools stay open. Instead, they chose to betray that obligation, to encourage teachers not to report for work—or even to forbid teachers from working—and to organize a school shutdown that has deprived kids, who have no say in the matter, of a week’s worth of classes. If the school year is extended as a result, this may also interfere not only with graduations and vacations, but with the ability of students to report for work, or for the military, or for religious missions overseas. They’ll need their transcripts, and this illegal school closure is likely to disrupt those plans. But just as bad is the experience of honest, hardworking teachers who wanted to do their jobs, weren’t allowed to, and now must pay the unfair price of their districts’ malfeasance. “I keep asking the same question,” one teacher told me yesterday. “What are the children being taught with this?”

Timothy Sandefur is Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute.