Teacher Union Raises Dues to Fight Vouchers

Published September 1, 2000

At the National Education Association’s 79th Annual Representative Assembly in Chicago on July 3-6, the 2.5 million-member labor union barred the use of merit pay or performance pay in teacher contracts, hiked union dues to expand its campaign against vouchers, raised over $1 million for its political action committee, overwhelmingly endorsed Democrat Al Gore for President, and agreed to help 270 delegates attend upcoming Presidential nominating conventions: 235 to the Democratic Convention and 35 to the Republican.

The Assembly was attended by 9,485 delegates. Despite early NEA projections, attendance was down slightly from last year and nowhere near the nearly 10,000 delegates who appeared for the merger debate in 1998. Media turnout on the opening day wasn’t much better: The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel was the only daily newspaper represented, and Education Week the only other newspaper of any sort.

Merit Pay Soundly Rejected

Contrary to all expectations, the delegates actually strengthened the union’s policy against merit pay and all forms of pay for performance. Going in, NEA officials had developed a resolution that would move toward rewarding teachers based on their performance, rather than their presence. But from the floor, the delegates substituted their own language for the language NEA officials presented. The new NEA policy allows additional compensation beyond the traditional salary schedule only for national certification. The relevant part of the resolution reads as follows:

The Association opposes providing additional compensation to attract and/or retain education employees in hard-to-recruit positions. The Association also believes that local affiliates can best promote the economic welfare of all education employees, regardless of source of funding, by following the salary standards developed at the state and national levels. The Association also believes that performance pay schedules, such as merit pay or any other system of compensation based on an evaluation of an education employee’s performance, are inappropriate.

The resolution was amended to explicitly exclude merit pay and performance pay from the basic contract standards NEA supports.

The tougher language had the support of virtually all of NEA’s large state affiliates: California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, and New Jersey. Many medium and smaller state affiliates, such as Arkansas, Kansas, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Utah, were in favor of performance pay. The standing vote showed somewhere between 60 and 65 percent of the delegates in favor of a complete ban on merit pay and performance pay, “or whatever politically correct words are being used to describe merit pay,” as Louisiana Association of Educators President Mary Washington said.

The performance pay vote produced a spate of negative newspaper editorials, with even the Washington Post titling its editorial “Teachers Against Reform.” The Democratic Leadership Council called the vote “disappointing” and said the excuses offered were “familiar and largely pointless.”

The proposed NEA resolution was about as far from embracing merit pay as was humanly possible. What happens now to “alternative salary structures” depends entirely on those states and communities who at least favor experimentation–states such as Hawaii, Iowa, North Carolina, and Wisconsin.

There are parallels to the 1998 national merger vote. Though they lobbied long and hard for NEA-AFT merger and lost, NEA affiliates in Florida, Minnesota, and Montana didn’t drop the idea for themselves afterwards. They merged at the state level.

Teacher Pay and Student Performance

One of last year’s New Business Items called on the union to “work to raise public and member awareness of the critical link between salaries for education employees and the quality and effectiveness of those employees.” The NBI directed NEA to “gather research and comparative data documenting the positive impact of higher salaries on the quality of education employees and the performance of their students” and then to disseminate it.

NEA Research was immediately put on the task and two consultants were hired. Their report is expected to be completed by October 15. According to NEA, “To date, the search has revealed no study that establishes a causal link between salary, education employee quality, and student performance.”

No to Privatization

After a long, confusing debate, the Assembly approved the final report of the NEA Committee on Educational Privatization with only a minor amendment. The 28-page report and five-page policy statement can be summarized this way: Privatization is acceptable only when there is no similar public service available, funds are never used (even indirectly) for sectarian purposes, and the privatization never negatively affects public employees. If all these conditions are met, NEA then defers to the local or state affiliate on the matter.

Some of the delegates saw this as weakening NEA’s position against privatization and argued strongly against it. But the report’s supporters prevailed.

Dues Hike

The Assembly passed a $5 dues increase earmarked for a newly created Ballot Measure/Legislative Crises and Media Campaign Fund. The reason given for the increase was to fight political battles in the states. All debate on the dues increase proposal centered on the Ballot Measure/Legislative Crises half of the fund. Delegates from California, Michigan, and Oregon described their desperate fights against hostile initiatives.

Much more problematic for NEA are the 2,113 delegates (24.9 percent) who voted yes at the Assembly on an amendment “to allow NEA members to designate the allocation of the ‘political activity’ portion of their dues.” The NEA will have to spend money from its national coffers in states where affiliates are not eager to spend their own money defending a policy with which they disagree. Nearly 34 percent of the delegates voted against the dues increase.

The dues increase is a PR boon for independent teacher organizations in those states that have them. Neither the Association of Texas Professional Educators, the Missouri State Teachers Association, nor the Professional Association of Georgia Educators has ever assessed its members for anything other than activities in their own states.

The dues increase will raise roughly $7.5 million for initiatives–an amount President Bob Chase indirectly confirmed may already be spoken for. Chase said NEA expects $7 million in requests for the first installment of the dues increase. The California Teachers Association alone is expected to ask for $5 million to fight the voucher initiative on that state’s November ballot.

Election 2000

There was never any doubt the Assembly delegates would concur with NEA’s endorsement of Democrat Al Gore for President. But the yardstick by which to measure their enthusiasm was the 91 percent concurrence they gave Bill Clinton in 1996. Gore exceeded expectations, receiving 89.5 percent of the delegate vote. The NEA vote cements the teacher unions’ position as Gore’s most loyal backers.

The vote has wide implications for the Presidential campaign, but not so much for the November vote itself. According to NEA’s own surveys, Republican nominee Bob Dole attracted 31 percent of the teacher vote in November 1996, roughly equivalent to the percentage of Republicans among the union’s membership at-large.

While NEA can be expected to work hard for the Gore campaign, the union is not overlooking congressional races and is hoping to make the difference in battleground districts. The union is targeting 25 races through the use of “staff deployment, member surveys, direct mail, phone operations, and a cyber-advocacy program.”

NEA’s political action committee met its goal for the convention by raising $1,036,332 from the delegates–an average of more than $105 per delegate.

New Themes

Chase focused on some new themes in his keynote address. He noted he had “heard from more of you about standards and high-stakes tests than any other single issue since becoming president of the NEA.” He cited ridiculous requirements of some tests, such as a Virginia test question that asks third-grade students to describe various aspects of Greek and Roman civilization.

The second new theme was gun control. Chase spent a good portion of his speech attacking Charlton Heston and the National Rifle Association. Chase and his speech writers went out on a rhetorical limb . . . and it very nearly cracked.

“Today, too many politicians are on the side of the biggest checkbook,” Chase told the delegates. “Children die in Paducah and the NRA writes a politician a check. Parents are killed in Springfield, and the NE– NRA writes a politician a check.” Chase’s near-Freudian slip (and the endless PAC solicitations) illustrated the union cannot hold the moral high ground when it comes to political check-writing.

Gun control came up again very quickly as New Business Item B was debated. The item requires NEA to prepare and distribute petitions calling for “meaningful gun control,” to be collected and presented to Congress on or before February 1, 2001. The NBI passed, but a surprising number of delegates spoke against it. In the end, about one-quarter to one-third of the delegates voted no.

Mike Antonucci is director of The Education Intelligence Agency, an organization that conducts public education research, analysis, and investigations. His weekly Communiqué is available at http://members.aol.com/educintel/eia or from [email protected].