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A major realignment quietly underway in American education could have profound implications for teachers and public education generally.
Without much fanfare, teachers have been resisting pressures to join or stick with the dominant labor unions like the National Education Association (NEA). Non-union professional associations now command a 10 percent market share, with more than 265,000 teachers as members.
This increasingly independent streak among K-12 teachers has fueled a growth
of statewide independent associations from 10 to 22 states in just the past
eight years. In at least three states — Georgia, Missouri, and Texas — the
non-union associations have more members than either the NEA or the American
Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teacher union.
The Association of American Educators (AAE), which formed 10 years ago to
give teachers a national non-union alternative to the NEA or AFT, recently
opened a national headquarters in Alexandria. And in Virginia itself, the
3-year-old Virginia Professional Educators (VPE) expects to hit a milestone this fall
when it will sign up its 1,000th teacher-member.
Tracey Bailey, the 1993 National Teacher of the Year who has been AAE’s
liaison and interim director of VPE, points out that professional associations designed by teachers, for teachers, “just make sense.” After all, says Bailey, “teachers are academic
professionals — just like lawyers, doctors, scientists, and engineers. And
professionals in these careers increase their level of respect in society and
their compensation by being represented by professional associations, not by national labor unions.”
If the independent teacher movement continues to grow, the result could be not just less labor strife disrupting education but a new openness to constructive change. Among school reformers, the NEA is almost universally regarded as their most hidebound opponent, a well-funded foe of merit pay, standardized testing, parental choice, and tenure reform.
In the past, many teachers have thought they had no choice but to join the NEA simply because they needed the liability insurance. However, AAE now offers teachers $2 million worth of liability coverage, twice what the NEA provides, and it does so while assessing its members dues about one-third those of the teacher unions. The independents can charge far less because they do not spend members’ money for political purposes.
Fairfax County teacher Bill Rhatican, who began teaching as a second career
after 30 years of federal government service, says he didn’t want to join a
conventional teacher union but was strongly advised to find liability
insurance. He found that VPE filled that need. Additionally, “what attracted me (to
VPE) was its focus on teachers specifically, rather than some broad social
“I felt (and still do) that if teachers want to join a politically oriented
and active group, they should be able to do so but they should not be forced
as a condition of employment to join an organization whose political beliefs
may, or may not, represent their own. … I did not want my membership in NEA
for professional reasons to be used for political reasons.”
The NEA supports Democratic candidates approximately 95 percent of the time. In addition, the NEA backs such causes as gay marriage, gun control, and abortion on demand, even though such positions violate basic values of many of its members. By contrast, the AAE
takes no stands on political issues, and weighs in on education issues only when
75 percent of its members are in support.
Hanover County teacher John Szewczyk had an up-close-and-personal look at
union operations when he served as president of the Hanover Education
Association from 1991 to 1993, and as an executive committee member of the Virginia
Education Association PAC from 1997 to 2001. From the beginning, Szewczyk was
troubled by the NEA’s pro-choice stand on abortion because it violated his
Catholic faith. He took up the VEA staff’s suggestion that he work from the
inside to change NEA stances, but he found that over time the union has become
“more strident and radical.”
VEA and NEA staff, he added, “rule the union through a culture of intimidation, coercion, and reprisal.” The staff pre-selects and aids candidates for major offices. Any officeholder who dissents can count on facing a staff-selected opponent in the next election.
“In 22 years, I never heard the union propose anything that would benefit
children,” Szewczyk concluded. Disillusioned, he left the union and began
helping the VPE get started in 2002.
As more teachers assert their independence, they will achieve the
professional choice they deserve. And public education will benefit from a new-found
(Robert Holland is senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a think tank in
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