Teachers Unions

Seventeen years and a host of education reforms separate public declarations by its highest-ranking officials that the nation’s largest labor union should become a leader of education reform. Children who were just entering the public school system when National Education Association (NEA) president Bob Chase addressed the National Press Club in 1997 are adults now, perhaps with children of their own. NEA executive director John Stocks issued the same call to arms in 2014.

The teachers unions now face an environment in which their traditional enemies are emboldened, their traditional allies are deserting, and some of their most devoted activists are questioning the leadership of their own officers.

The events of the last five years have led the two national teachers unions to what normally is referred to as “the moment of truth.” But truth is tricky to define when perceptions are an integral part of the unions’ influence. Even weakened, together the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) constitute the single most powerful force in American education policy. Nothing moves forward without an answer to one question: What will the union do?

Will the NEA and the AFT continue to exert veto power over education reform? Are their recent setbacks the beginning of an irreversible decline? Will they become more militant or less as the years go on?

Predicting the future is a hazardous business, but if what’s past is prologue, we can at least make a reasonable estimation that assumes no unprecedented, revolutionary change in direction. Considering the quotes above, that seems to be a safe assumption.

A Nation at Risk may have jolted the education world, but it had no effect on the growth and power of teachers unions. They enjoyed substantial boosts in membership each year, as the hiring of teachers and education support employees grew at historic rates. There were periodic national efforts at education reform, such as Goals 2000, but the unions weathered these storms, and the winds eventually died down.

President George W. Bush signs the No Child Left Behind Act into law, with Representative George Miller and Senator Edward Kennedy behind him (from left)

The first sign that the world was changing around them was the passage of the No Child Behind Act (NCLB) in 2001. Staunch union allies such as Representative George Miller of California and Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts co-authored the bill, and it passed Congress by wide margins, with more Democratic votes than Republican ones.

The accountability provisions of the law bedevil the unions to this day, but the large increase in federal education spending ended up helping the unions’ bottom line, as still more teachers and support workers were hired.

The situation was further complicated by Obama’s embrace of education reforms the NEA found anathema. He gave moderate praise to performance pay. As a U.S. senator, he was the only Democrat to introduce an NCLB-related bill that the union opposed. The NEA analysis of the proposed legislation claimed it favored “1) establishing a teacher evaluation system using gains in student test scores; 2) allowing ‘community stakeholders’ to have a role in designing teacher evaluation systems; and 3) providing merit pay for teachers based upon gains in student test scores.”

As a result, the NEA did not get around to endorsing Obama until after he had clinched the nomination. They worked hard to help elect him in 2008, but it was clear that he felt no special obligation to the unions when he named Arne Duncan as U.S. secretary of education, instead of union favorite Linda Darling-Hammond of Stanford.

Duncan has since become the bête noire of the teachers unions, but his selection and subsequent actions signified a clear continuity in education policy from Obama the candidate to Obama the president. Coupled with the growing influence of Democrats for Education Reform, it was now OK to be a Democrat without kowtowing to the unions on every education issue.

But let’s not go crazy. When the recession hit, the Obama administration’s first instinct was to protect the jobs of educators. Secretary Duncan claimed the stimulus package of 2009 funded more than 300,000 education jobs. Follow-on legislation, the so-called “edujobs” bill of 2010, was purported to save 160,000 more.

President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan visit a school in Chicago in December 2008, just after Duncan’s nomination

As mammoth as the spending was, these were short-term fixes. Education hiring actually grew 2.3 percent during the recession, but then fell off a cliff when the money ran out. Educators experienced the Great Recession about two years after everyone else.

Reductions in force meant fewer teachers-union members, which meant reduced revenue for the unions. Budgetary concerns also provided the impetus for Republicans seeking to curb the power of teachers unions, the primary example being the passage in 2011 of Act 10 in Wisconsin, which greatly restricted the bargaining power of NEA and AFT affiliates in the state, and ultimately reduced their dues-paying membership by more than one-third.

Right-to-work legislation followed in Indiana and Michigan, and in places where teachers unions were already struggling—like Arizona, Idaho, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Tennessee—membership fell by 20 percent or more. The 3,000-member University of Hawaii Professional Assembly left the NEA and became independent.

Today, the NEA’s membership is down more than 9 percent over the last four years. The AFT claims its membership is steady, though it has maintained it by affiliating unions outside the field of education, and not by recruiting a horde of new teachers. The percentage of teachers who are union members has dropped (see Figure 1).

The question dogging both national unions and their affiliates is how to turn this state of affairs around. There seem to be two alternatives, roughly analogous to a choice between war and diplomacy.

One faction, existing in both unions, wants to man the barricades, fight over every inch of territory, and take no prisoners. It sees education reformers outside of the union sphere as either corporate privatizers seeking to grasp some of the $640 billion this country spends annually on public schools, or their tools.

The most identifiable leaders of this militant faction are Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, Alex Caputo-Pearl of United Teachers Los Angeles, Bob Peterson of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, and Barbara Madeloni of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.

union officers address an audience of union activists, the world is described in Manichaean terms. Standardized testing is not just misused, it is “toxic.” Opponents are not just opponents, they are adversaries “who want to destroy our democracy and our public schools”—for money. These enemies are identified by name: the Koch Brothers, the Cato Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Pearson, Inc., Democrats for Education Reform, Michelle Rhee, and Arne Duncan.

The only force standing in their way is the teachers union—“the champions of equity,” who “define solutions that drive excellence and success for all students,” as described by former NEA president Dennis Van Roekel in his keynote address to the Representative Assembly in July 2014. Union activists, in the words of John Stocks, spoken two years earlier, are “social justice patriots” who “put the power of our soul to work to defend democracy, to fight for equal opportunity, and to create a more just society.”

That plays well with the troops, whose enthusiasm and commitment are needed to advance the agenda. Unfortunately for the teachers unions, the wider world is not an echo chamber of their beliefs. To the general public, many of whom have little idea what the NEA and the AFT actually do, it sounds more than a little hyperbolic and self-congratulatory.

The external message cannot be so bellicose. Both the NEA and the AFT need allies, including those who might not sign on to the totality of the unions’ vision for public education and American politics. Even with their opponents, they cannot escalate every confrontation to Armageddon. Compromises occur.

Union officers are also aware that it is detrimental to their cause to be constantly saying “no” to so many proposals for school reform. Thus the external message is devoted to depicting an organization that is forward-thinking and innovative when it comes to operating the nation’s schools.

The problem for the unions’ establishment wing is that the internal message leads their devotees to believe that such compromises, collaborations, and accommodations are selling out the movement. They are not always wrong about that.

While both national unions decry the corporate influence on education, they have partnerships with large corporations on many levels: sponsorships of union events, discount arrangements and credit cards as part of member benefits packages, funding for joint projects, etc. The NEA even went so far as to team up with Walden Media on a book-buying initiative for needy children. Walden Media produced Waiting for Superman, a documentary about families trying to get their kids into charter schools. It was especially critical of teachers unions.

Union activists often depict the Gates Foundation as the mastermind behind corporate education reform. But in 2009, when the foundation announced it would award $335 million to a number of school districts and charter schools to promote teacher effectiveness, the union response was a far cry from the anticorporate rhetoric it regularly delivers to its internal audience.

“These districts, working with their unions and parents, were willing to think out of the box, and were awarded millions of dollars to create transparent, fair, and sustainable teacher effectiveness models,” said AFT president Randi Weingarten.

“Collaboration and multilevel integration are important when it comes to transforming the teaching profession,” said then NEA president Van Roekel. “These grants will go far in providing resources to help raise student achievement and improve teacher effectiveness.”

The NEA’s own foundation received $550,000 from the Gates Foundation to “improve labor-management collaboration.” The AFT accrued more than $10 million from the Gates Foundation, until internal pressures forced the union to end some of the grants. And of course, the Gates Foundation helped bankroll the development of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), which both unions continue to officially support (see “Teachers Unions and the Common Core,” features, Winter 2015).

The militant wing is mostly hostile to CCSS, seeing the standards as part and parcel of the corporate education-reform agenda. The establishment wing has been forced to triangulate by defending the standards but attacking the way they have been implemented.

The split between the two factions was illustrated at the 2014 AFT Convention. The delegation from Chicago introduced a resolution to place the AFT in full opposition to CCSS, but it was handily defeated in committee, a committee dominated by New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, the backbone of the AFT’s establishment wing.

Instead, AFT delegates passed a resolution stating the union would “continue to support the promise of CCSS, provided that a set of essential conditions, structures and resources are in place.”