At one time teachers unions were professional organizations. Now they have been transformed into the same type industrial trade union that represents autoworkers or steelmakers, with the same political clout and parochial interests. This is at the same time that teachers demand respect for being professionals.
The Education Next article The Long Reach of Teachers Unions: Using money to win friends and influence policy is a must-read for those who think the teacher union is a benign fraternal group looking out for the interests of schoolchildren.
Even those familiar with the teachers union and their political activity may be surprised to learn that the National Education Association (NEA) has become the largest political campaign spender.
Its spending is mostly on politically liberal organizations and candidates, even though that doesn’t represent the will of all teachers. Internal NEA polls, says the article, show that union members are slightly more conservative than liberal. Other polling show that there is significant support (not majority support) among teachers for charter schools and merit pay. The fight against these two items, both supported by President Obama, consumes much of the union’s energy.
The problem is that the teachers union leadership is liberal and out of step with their members.
According to a Harris poll, Americans like and have respect for teachers, but they don’t trust union leaders. As the article explains, when union leaders can say they’re doing things “for the kids,” they can get a way with a lot. Newspaper reporting doesn’t help: “Press coverage of the teachers unions is usually assigned to an education reporter, which ensures the story will be framed around education issues.”
The article recommends giving the political activities of teachers unions their proper perspective: “Coverage of teachers unions needs to emerge from its current position as an afterthought on the education beat, and assume its place alongside national fiscal and political reporting. Only then will the public see that Big Oil and Big Tobacco have a brother called Big Education.”
The Long Reach of Teachers Unions
By Mike Antonucci
When the Florida legislature, on April 8th, passed a bill that sought to replace teacher tenure with merit pay, the Florida Education Association (FEA) sprang into action, organizing members and community activists to lobby Governor Charlie Crist to veto the measure. FEA, with the help of its parent union, the National Education Association (NEA), generated thousands of e-mails, letters, phone calls, and Internet posts in opposition to the legislation. When Governor Crist delivered his veto on April 15th, the union ran television and Internet ads, thanking him. A few weeks later, FEA gave a much-needed boost to Crist’s independent bid for a U.S. Senate seat by endorsing both Crist and Democratic candidate Kendrick Meek.
If you think it’s far-fetched to suggest that a teachers union could play the role of political kingmaker, think again. The largest political campaign spender in America is not a megacorporation, such as Wal-Mart, Microsoft, or ExxonMobil. It isn’t an industry association, like the American Bankers Association or the National Association of Realtors. It’s not even a labor federation, like the AFL-CIO. If you combine the campaign spending of all those entities it does not match the amount spent by the National Education Association, the public-sector labor union that represents some 2.3 million K–12 public school teachers and nearly a million education support workers (bus drivers, custodians, food service employees), retirees, and college student members. NEA members alone make up more than half of union members working for local governments, by far the most unionized segment of the U.S. economy.