Opinion: Chancery Court order a win for Tennessee teachers

AP File Photo/Mark Humphrey / Gov. Bill Lee's Paycheck Protection Act will now be fully implemented with the dismissal of a suit by the Tennessee Education Association challenging a part of law.

A three-judge panel has dismissed a lawsuit by the Tennessee Education Association, which means teachers' paychecks and union dues now will be severed.

The Teacher Paycheck Protection Act, signed into law earlier this year, aims to raise minimum public school teacher pay in the state to $50,000 by 2027 but also bans union membership dues from being automatically deducted from teacher paychecks.

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA), a state teachers union, filed suit to temporarily halt the payroll deductions, saying the law was unconstitutional because the state Constitution prohibits a bill that "embraces more than one subject."

The three-judge panel of the state's Chancery Court of the 20th Judicial District in late July denied the TEA's motion, saying it was "unlikely to succeed on the merits" of its claims. "The Act does not impermissibly embrace more than one subject, and its caption fairly describes its contents."

In turn, according to the most recent order entered Monday, since it appears "that the Plaintiffs have filed notice ... of their voluntary dismissal of this action, it is ordered that this action be and is hereby dismissed without prejudice." The plaintiffs will pay court costs.

One member of the three-judge panel is 11th Judicial District Chancery Court Judge Pam Fleenor of Hamilton County.

With the order, state teachers can feel a measure of freedom, if they choose, from the TEA and the National Education Association, with which each local education association operates under a "unified membership structure."

Many teachers may not appreciate the political activity in which the TEA or NEA engages. The TEA's lobbying spending alone, according to Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti, has been about $2 million to $3.5 million since 2011. And, he said, the TEA's membership applications provide that "a portion of [each member's] dues are allocated to the TEA-FCPE," which engages in political activities, "including but not limited to, making contributions to and expenditures on behalf of friends of public education who are candidates for office."

In other words, a teacher may not support a certain candidate, but some of the teacher's dues may go to that candidate if it is someone the TEA backs.

The lion's share of TEA's political contributions over the years has gone to Democrats and Democratic committees.

Indeed, according to J.C. Bowman, executive director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, cited in the Tennessee Star, the organization Americans for Fair Treatment noted in 2020-2021 that the National Education Association "spent $2 on politics for every $1 it spent on representing its members."

"This is very problematic for all teachers who get painted with the liberal brush of union politics across the state," he said.

Dues for teachers nationally, according to an Education Intelligence Agency post on 2020-2021 dues, averaged $650.64, plus local dues.

The Chancery Court order also puts the TEA on equal footing with other teacher organizations. As Bowman pointed out, "[W]e have long been denied equal access to payroll deductions. The [TEA] union was often an obstacle to that equal access. Therefore, we created our own online system where members could pay their dues conveniently and securely."

Those dues, as opposed to TEA/NEA dues, are under $200 per year, he said.

The TEA is now pushing dues payment through EZ Pay, telling its members on its website that "to keep your TEA membership in 2023-24, you MUST convert online to EZ Pay. It is a safe, secure and easy method of paying your dues online ... ."

Bowman, according to the Tennessee Star, noted how previously teachers had to opt out of the union dues being taken out of their paychecks instead of opting in to have them taken out.

In doing so, he cited the testimony of TEA President Tanya Coates, who said, "Members may opt out of automatic deduction payments between August 1 and August 31 of each year; otherwise, the deductions take place on a continuing basis."

The even more positive news for teachers from the Teacher Paycheck Protection Act is the fact that, if all goes according to plan, the base salary for teachers in 2027 will be $50,000, up 42% from Gov. Bill Lee's first year in office when it was $35,000, and up nearly 22% from the current rate of $41,000.

For many teachers, the two parts of the bill passed this spring — and with the Chancery Court ruling — are a win-win.