Updated Jan. 19
(Washington, D.C.) Rebecca Friedrichs is a third-grade teacher in Southern California and the lead plaintiff in a closely watched Supreme Court case that’s challenging the collection of mandatory fees by the teachers union. The Seventy Four has been following the case for months; be sure to check out our coverage of the 9 things you need to know about the groundbreaking case, Justice Scalia’s notable reactions during oral arguments and our legal analysis of how three key votes at the Court seem to be swinging in the plaintiff’s direction.
The day after her case took center stage at the Supreme Court, Friedrichs spoke with The Seventy Four in Washington, D.C. The below transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
The Seventy Four: Tell me about yesterday at the court.
Rebecca Friedrichs: I woke up around 2:15 a.m. and couldn’t fall back to sleep, just so excited. Not nervous, just excited, thrilled, humbled. It’s kind of that feeling where you’re having an out-of-body experience. How did I get here? How did this happen? I don’t deserve this, this is just too incredible … I thought ‘Wow, I get to sit in the greatest courtroom in the world and my name’s on the case?’ And my husband and my son get to be in there with me. [Her son, 20, is a college student studying political science and considering a career in law.] It was just… I have a shortage of words. I wish my vocabulary was larger. It was overwhelming and remarkable.
And how do you think the arguments went?
I was very pleased – you could tell that [the justices] have heard our message. They seemed to understand. I felt things were done very fairly and I really enjoyed learning the process, just watching it all happen. I felt very hopeful at the end.
Take us back to the beginning: Why did you file this lawsuit?
For 25 years of my career, I tried to make my voice heard within my local union. I did that several ways. I did it by serving as a local union rep. I was a rep and I was on the board, the executive board. I couldn’t make my voice heard there. I went to an annual California Teachers Association, National Education Association conference, I couldn’t make my voice heard there. I spoke to administration, over and over and over again, and the answer was always, well, we can’t do that because of the union… Every single time I was met with silence, total inaction.
I finally realized that even as a union board member, I had no voice. So I had to find a way to get my voice out there. I actually started writing editorials before I filed this lawsuit, just because I felt the American people needed to know the truth about what’s going on in unions.
When this lawsuit opportunity came around, oh, I jumped on it. It was wonderful.
Has your life changed at all since you’ve gotten involved in this lawsuit?
My life has changed a lot. The biggest change is hope. I have hope.
I was feeling totally demoralized at school, at work, because of union dominance…. When you constantly are ignored, particularly when you’re representing those who are paying the bill, it’s just demoralizing.
The biggest change I think is that I have hope. I have hope for the future of education.
I have hope for the future of my students. This lawsuit has given me the energy I needed to continue in the negative environment. So that’s the biggest change…
My office is a big giant mess. It used to be clean.
What was your family’s reaction when you came to them and said you wanted to join the lawsuit?
When you take on the union, you know, it’s scary. You’re most likely going to be harassed.
So when I received the little email that I could be a part of this, I’ll never forget this day. I was sitting, my husband and I have an office in our home and both of our desks are in that office and we’re sort of back to back. Email bleeps in, I read it, I have chills from head to toe, oh I really want to do this.
I turn around, ‘Charles, here’s what’s going on, can I do this?’ And he says, ‘Absolutely, you go for it.’ So I said, ‘OK, I have to ask the boys because they could be impacted too.’ [Freidrichs has two sons, now 20 and 24.] You know, their house could be egged, or whatever.
So I called both of the boys in, and both of them had the same exact reaction, ‘Go for it mom, this is great.’ They’ve been a part of my battle. They understand it…
How have your co-workers reacted?
That’s been the biggest surprise. I thought I was going to be ostracized every day.…
When I was a young teacher, there was a voucher initiative and they were coming in telling us how we had to be boots on the ground against the vouchers, knock on doors, phone bank, all of that. And I had done my research and I said, ‘Well gosh, I can’t do that, I’m for vouchers. I think parents should have a right to choose and kids should have options.’
They called me a radical right-winger, right there in front of all my friends. That whole year I was really ostracized. The union reps were the ones that were mean to me. The other teachers just don’t say anything because they’re afraid. I don’t know how they felt.
So I take this on, thinking that they’re just all going to be mad at me or silent, I’m going to be alone all the time. I’ve experienced the exact opposite. I have had numerous teachers pull me into a dark room and shut the door and, it’s always one at a time, throw their arms around me, thank me, tell me they’re praying for me, or they’ll send me a private email to my home…I’ve just had a ton of support, a lot more support than negative, very little negative.
I get emails from around the country from teachers and other public sector employees…I’ve made all these great friends who are totally behind me. I think that’s been the biggest surprise, is all the wonderful new friends I’ve made through this journey. I thought it was going to be a lonely journey, and it ended up being an inspiring adventure with a lot of like-minded people.
You’ve publicly said you were ostracized in the past because of your position on vouchers, and I’ve read about your opposition to last-in, first-out teacher dismissal policies. Are there other policies the union backs that you don’t support?
I’m totally against tenure. I think if a teacher has become incompetent or is abusive or doesn’t belong there for any reason, an administrator should be able to let that teacher go…I have seen tenure be harmful to students at every level, from kindergarten through college. My own children have been negatively impacted, my own biological children, negatively impacted by tenure…
We have this national discussion about how we don’t have enough teachers…When I hear about this I just think my goodness, if we could just get rid of the steps and columns [salary schedule that sets pay based on education and years of service]…When you’re a first year teacher, even if you’re bringing in 20 years of experience from the science field, you start at the top one on the top left corner, the lowest pay. Don’t you deserve to be paid for all of that wealth of information that you’re bringing in and experience you’re bringing in? No wonder nobody wants to come be a teacher. So I have a problem with that.
I have a problem with outstanding teachers who work incredibly hard, who give of their time, of their hearts, who are so supportive to their students and their students’ families, being paid based on how many years they’ve been there and how much education they have. And then a teacher who just kind of shows up and goes through the motions gets paid the same thing if they have the same number of years and the same number of [education] units. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s not a good business model and quite frankly it’s not fair to the ones who work hard…
Here’s what’s really bothering me. I work in a low-income district. My students need a lot of support. Not all of them, but a big chunk of them, need a lot of support. I cannot remember the last time I had a teacher’s aide, not even for 5 minutes…Instead, my union continually pushes for raises for me. I really would prefer to make a little less and have a teacher’s aide.
If I’m in a dream here, I’d love to have a science lab on my campus, a science teacher running a science lab in every school in America. Well, if we cut our salaries back just a little or don’t get that next huge raise, we could afford that science teacher and that science lab. So it’s those kind of things. I could go on all day.
It’s not all about money. I don’t believe in putting the self-interest of adults above the educational interests of children.