August. Its arrival elicits familiar feelings for teachers like us … Butterflies in the stomach. The urgency to squeeze in a few more summer adventures with family before the scramble to the first day of school.

For members of our state’s largest teachers union, the Connecticut Education Association, August also marks the time for an important personal decision: Remain or leave as dues-paying union members? August is the CEA’s “escape window.” Teachers can leave by mailing a letter to arrive in Hartford by the end of this month.

Last winter, a few Connecticut teachers created an informal Facebook group called Constitution State Educators to connect with fellow teachers who are reconsidering the costs and benefits of union membership. Since then, hundreds have joined us and we’ve hosted Zoom Q&As attended by teachers in districts across the state.

Michael Costanza

In a recent op-ed in this space, CEA leaders disparaged those who would suggest leaving the union. In emails this spring, they scolded teachers for even thinking of attending our online sessions. And of late, the CEA has resorted to having its lawyers make phone calls to teachers who’ve mailed in escape letters.

Ironically, for some teachers this is the most attention the union has ever paid to them.

The CEA’s panicked reaction, while disappointing (and legally questionable), is predictable considering the money it stands to lose if teachers continue to leave and take their $800-$1,000 in annual dues with them. Rather than chiding or trying to scare teachers, however, the CEA would do well to listen to them. Union leaders might ask themselves WHY teachers are leaving.

Instead, the CEA self-soothes, rationalizing that nefarious, wealthy outsiders must somehow be tricking us teachers into leaving. Does the union really think so little of its own members? Is it too much to ask — of a union, particularly — that it respect the intelligence and the rights of teachers to make their own best decisions?

We’ve found that Connecticut teachers have a variety of heartfelt reasons for leaving the union and hardly find joy in doing so. Sometimes it’s the overwhelmingly one-sided political spending or the politicization of the classroom. Many are upset at union cheerleading for school closures and pandemic mandates forced upon teachers and students. Some, after years of loyally paying union dues, nearly lost their jobs, or know colleagues who did, while the union stood by and watched. Teachers’ workloads keep increasing, our creative freedom keeps diminishing, and yet dues keep going up. Meanwhile, some teachers are exasperated with locals who are too chummy with school administrators, who play favorites, or who are lazy or absent when teachers need them.

This diversity of reasons makes union choice all the more important.

To that end, with Constitution State Educators we hope to make clear five facts that the CEA — for some strange reason — often neglects to mention.

  1. Union membership is 100 percent optional. If you want to leave, we can provide a letter template.
  2. Teachers who leave the union cannot be required to pay union fees of any kind. This has been the case since the 2018 Janus decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.
  3. Every teacher is covered fully by his or her school district’s contract, union member or not.
  4. Unions have a legal duty of fair representation to all teachers, including non-members. Put simply, since unions demand exclusive bargaining power on behalf of all employees, they must protect all employees fairly under the contracts they negotiate.
  5. Teachers who’ve lost faith in the unions are free to join non-union professional associations.

We invited two such non-union associations to Zoom with Connecticut teachers this year: the Association of American Educators (AAE) and the Christian Educators Association International (CEAI). Both provide liability insurance and workplace legal protection, for far less than union dues, and are open to any W-2 employees of educational institutions from pre-K to higher ed.

The CEA calls them “impostors” looking to please monied interests, but such claims call to mind the pot and the kettle. After all, unions enjoy the same spending freedoms that big corporations do — anyone remember Citizens United? According to NEA’s own filings with the U.S. Department of Labor, the union spent $66 million on political activities in 2020-21 compared to just $32 million representing members. This is despite raking in $377 million from its teachers. If the union wants to complain about David’s slingshot, it ought to stop promoting itself as a partisan Goliath.

In the meantime, Connecticut teachers are free to move on. Many have found AAE and CEAI to their liking. But don’t just take our word for it. Check out their websites. Call them. Get to know them the way we have. Weigh the pros and cons. Decide for yourself.

The choice is yours and yours alone.

Michael Costanza is an elementary school teacher in North Stonington. His opinions are not related to and do not reflect those of his employer. He is the founder of Constitution State Educators.