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Much of the current controversy regarding the rights and responsibilities of public-sector employees and their unions has focused on elementary and secondary school teachers. On one side of that controversy, critics of teachers and teachers' unions argue that teachers are overpaid civil servants and that unions’ focus on wages and working conditions comes at the expense of students’ learning. On the other side, teachers’ unions and their supporters focus on the unique role educators play in forming the next generation of citizens and the need to adequately support teachers in fulfilling that role.

Implicit in this discourse are two distinct characterizations of teachers: as governmental employees following directives laid down by school boards and principals; and as semi-free agents charged with expertly carrying out a democratic mission. While these characterizations are not mutually exclusive, they implicate different values that can stand in tension with one another. For example, if teachers are characterized primarily as governmental employees, employers’ directives will be paramount in determining how teachers should perform their jobs, even when they are ill-advised; on the other hand, if teachers are characterized primarily as agents of democracy, students’ interests, together with those of society writ-large, should be the focus.