The National Education Association’s active membership decreased by approximately 100,000 members in the 2011-2012 school year. Although the NEA remains the nation’s most visible and powerful teachers union, over the past few years several new efforts have emerged nationally to give teachers an alternative voice in policy while educating them about professional, non-union options.
“A lot of people speak on our behalf when that’s not necessarily our voice,” says Brenda, a sixth grade teacher explaining why she supports Educators 4 Excellence (E4E) on their video channel.
When not required by state law to join unions as a condition of employment, many teachers choose another organization with national membership, such as the Association of American Educators. AAE is the largest nonunion teachers’ association. Others choose regional organizations such as E4E in New York, the California Teachers Empowerment Network, and Boston-based Teach Plus. These have their most membership in right-to-work states, where union membership and dues are not compulsory.
Interest Growing Nationally
“Very good things are happening on the national stage,” said Larry Sand, president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network. One example is Texas, where the Association of Texas Professional Educators has more than 116,000 members, more than double the membership of the local NEA affiliate. It’s the largest independent association for public school educators in the nation.
Tim Farmer, membership director for the Professional Association of Colorado Educators, an AAE state affiliate, says members are motivated by growing frustration with the big teachers unions.
“[Teachers] don’t feel like they are being included,” he said. “They don’t feel like they have much of a voice.” That is pushing educators to seek union alternatives, he said.
Legislative, Economic Encouragement
“In order for the teaching profession to really be elevated to an academic profession, it is going to have to embrace some different reforms. It is going to have to be more open to change,” says Farmer.
New legislation is encouraging some change. Tracey Bailey, 1993 National Teacher of the Year and director of education policy for the Association of American Educators, says, “The greatest change is happening in the Great Lakes region, where state laws have just changed to allow teachers more choice.”
The poor economy means more and more states and cities face tight budgets and have begun to look closely at pension costs.
“Cities are going bankrupt, and if we want [teacher] pensions to be there, we have to be more cautious about union abuse,” Bailey said.
Younger Teachers for Freedom
Teachers also push for reform and more options when they see the disparity between their compensation and that of union officials.
“When rank-and-file teachers are only making $50,000 and their union bosses are making $500,000, they get a little upset,” Bailey said.
Sand credits younger charter-school and Teach for America teachers with this change.
“[They] don’t like all the strictures that unions impose,” he said. “Younger teachers want more freedom, more say in their classrooms. Now, as they get older, hopefully the fire in their belly will stay, but we will have to wait and see.”
The newer a teacher, the more he or she is likely to support reform proposals such as merit pay, removing “last in, first out” seniority policies, expanding charter schools, and ending tenure, according to a 2011 study from the National Center for Education Information.
This younger generation is also part of what Bailey calls a generational and cultural shift away from unionism.
“We are seeing a decline in unionism because it has lost its focus,” he said. “It has chosen a path that is counterproductive for the people that it serves. We are seeing [the] decline of the system that does not work as well as it should for children, for teachers, and for taxpayers.”
Although growing, alternative teacher groups are still small compared to the 3.2 million-strong NEA membership, which encompasses some 80 percent of organized teachers.
“The next step is to get members more engaged, which starts by educating teachers,” Farmer said. “We are operating on shoestring budgets and small staffs. It is an uphill battle, but one worth fighting.”
Image by Rex Pe.