Editors note: On October 13, the New Jersey Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the union’s appeal of the ruling that struck down release time. Instead of focusing on the statutory ruling below, the state high court appears poised to rule on whether release time violates the New Jersey Constitution’s Gift Clause that prohibits a gift of public funds to private entities.
In June 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, Local 31 that forcing public sector workers to pay union dues in order to keep their jobs violates those workers’ First Amendment rights. The government can’t force government workers to pay for the unions’ activities or speech—all of which are inherently political.
But what about taxpayers? Can the government force taxpayers to pay the salaries of union leaders who develop and implement those political activities or their speech? A court in New Jersey just ruled it can’t.
In August, New Jersey’s intermediate appellate court ruled that public school districts cannot use taxpayer dollars to pay salaries for union workers. This ruling may represent a welcome step toward ending this abuse of taxpayer dollars funding private, political speech.
The case Rozenblit v. Lyles debated the controversial practice known as “release time.” Release time is when government workers (in this case, New Jersey public school teachers) are “released” from their teaching duties to focus 100% on dealing with union issues. These teachers are still considered state employees, with full taxpayer-funded teacher salaries and benefits, but instead of teaching students in the classroom, they work exclusively for the teachers’ union.
In essence, release time amounts to nothing more than a taxpayer-funded subsidy for the union’s political speech and activities.
Even union executives are paid by release time. In Jersey City, the teachers’ union president and vice president both work under release time. The school district pays these two teachers even though they do no actual classroom teaching and the school district has no control over their activities or responsibilities. Two Jersey City taxpayers objected to this questionable arrangement and sued with the assistance of the Goldwater Institute. The case argued that the release time subsidy to the union violated the state constitution’s Gift Clause. Pacific Legal Foundation filed an amicus brief in support of the taxpayers.
While the court did not address the constitutional Gift Clause issue, it did rule that the school district acted outside its statutory authority in agreeing to the release time provision as part of its collective bargaining agreement with the union.
The court flatly rejected the union’s argument that the district benefited from the arrangement. In short, the court ruled that taxpayers don’t benefit from paying teachers to work for their union instead of teaching, and so the school district can’t use tax dollars to pay for union worker salaries. But it hasn’t taken long for the teachers unions to object. A union president is challenging a local board of education in New Jersey after the board ruled she must actually teach in the classroom (where she was a history teacher) to be paid by the district.
Release time isn’t limited to New Jersey; it’s common in states across the country. But the New Jersey court’s decision, ruling that release time is essentially a theft of taxpayer dollars on the part of the union, offers some hope.
If teacher unions want to hire full-time employees to work on collective bargaining issues, they have every right to do so—but they can’t force taxpayers to pay for it and subsidize their political activities.