Why Teachers’ Unions Are Losing Membership (And Dues)

Teachers Unions

by Christopher Paslay

Surveys show that many teachers see their unions as too leftist.

America needs organized labor, especially when it comes to our country’s educators. For decades, teachers (most of whom were women with no political rights) were offered low pay and had no control over their working conditions or the direction of their profession.

In 1857, forty-three educators came together in Philadelphia to change all of that. Forming what would become the National Education Association (NEA), the new union focused on raising teacher salaries, reforming child labor laws, and educating emancipated slaves.

A half-century later, a sixth-grade schoolteacher from Chicago named Margaret Haley came along. Frustrated by her low wage and the treatment she was receiving from her principal, Haley joined a group of elementary schoolteachers from Chicago in 1916 and went on to form the American Federation of Teachers, whose goal was to unify educators across the country.

Throughout the 20thCentury, the NEA and AFT would go on to fight for the rights of teachers, women, and minorities—not only revolutionizing the education profession by securing fair wages and safe working conditions—but also helping to bring equality to America’s marginalized groups along the way.

But in 2018, America’s two biggest teachers’ unions find themselves in a challenging situation. According to Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and policy organization, teachers’ unions may be losing power. She writes:

Make no bones about it. Teachers unions are reeling from a game-changing decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. . . . The public may not have much noticed, but unions feel they are standing at a precipice, not at all certain they can maintain the power they’re long accustomed to wielding.

After the high court sided with Janus in Janus vs. AFSCME, public-sector workers will no longer be required to contribute to their unions, something nearly half of all states — including Minnesota — require regardless of whether teachers choose to belong to the union. The nation’s largest union, the National Education Association (NEA), having just held its annual convention in Minneapolis, expects to be hard hit. It’s anyone’s best guess how many of the 78,000 active teachers who currently contribute to the Education Minnesota union will opt out in the years ahead, but the initial hit will almost certainly include some 7,000 teachers who have already registered their discontent over having been forced to contribute.

Internal documents from the NEA predict the union could lose up to 300,000 members nationwide. The AFT, which has 15 of its 22 largest state affiliates in former agency-fee states, will be affected even more by Janus.

So why are teachers’ unions having such an issue with dues and membership? Union officials will undoubtedly point the finger at the Janus ruling, but this is by no means an adequate answer. The recent Supreme Court decision doesn’t bar educators from joining unions or paying dues, it simply gives them a choice. The real question that must be addressed is this: Why, if given the choice of joining a union and paying dues, are so many teachers opting out?

One major reason, other than simple finances, is that teachers’ unions have become far too political as of late. More specifically, they’ve veered too far left. According to Walsh, independent surveys consistently report that only half of all teachers see their union as “essential” and that many see “political activity as too leftist.”

Incredibly, only half of all teachers voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016. This is quite concerning, given the fact that the NEA and AFT combined to donate $33 million to political campaigns in 2016—over 93 percent to Democrats. But the fact that the Democrats lost the Presidency in 2016 (and over 1,000 total seats, including the House and the Senate, during the Obama years), doesn’t seem to register with union officials. Instead of taking stock of the diverse political affiliations and interests of their members, the NEA and AFT have done the complete opposite: they’ve doubled-down on their polarizing agendas, becoming even more political and even more leftist than ever before.

At the NEA’s annual convention in Minneapolis early this month, the union presented former San Francisco 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick with their highest honor—the NEA’s President’s Award. Perhaps awarding Kaepernick, a man whom many see as disrespectful to law enforcement and the military, wasn’t the best choice when trying to increase union membership? That wasn’t the only thing that could be seen as polarizing by new teachers trying to decide if they want to become NEA members. According to the National Review:

The NEA adopted 122 total New Business Items, including commitments to promote the Black Lives Matter Week of Action (including supporting BLM’s demand that “ethnic studies be taught in pre-K-12 schools”), to support “a strategy postponing confirmation of a Supreme Court justice until after the mid-term election,” and to encourage teachers to assign readings that “describe and deconstruct the systemic proliferation of a White supremacy culture and its constituent elements of White privilege and institutional racism.” The NEA also promised to respond “in support of and in solidarity with immigrant families who are separated, incarcerated, or refused their legal right to request asylum due to the heartless, racist, and discriminatory zero-tolerance policies of the Trump administration.”

Basically, the NEA is saying screw you to any current or future member who supports the President, which is quite mind-boggling, being that nearly 63 million Americans voted for Trump in 2016—over 105,000 of them from Philadelphia alone.

The AFT went hard left as well. They unanimously endorsed a “public investment strategy for health care and education infrastructure,” which includes free tuition at all public colleges and universities, and “taxation of the rich to fully fund” a raft of education programs.

Again, doubling-down on a socialist agenda might not be the best approach when trying to court future dues-paying union members, especially if the AFT is interested in any political diversity whatsoever (which clearly they’re not).

Remember: The Janus decision merely provides America’s teachers with a choice: To join/pay dues, or not to join/pay dues. The fact that more and more teachers are opting for the latter might be a wakeup call to union officials to become a little more politically diverse, or at least soften some of their left-leaning political agendas.

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The Romney Education Plan: ‘Get the teacher unions out’

by Christopher Paslay

Mitt Romney’s school reform plan calls for confronting unions, ignoring class size, and discounting teacher experience.    

Mitt Romney’s new message on the education front is his pledge to take on teachers unions in an effort to—cue the Michelle Rhee drum roll—put students first!  “We have got to put the kids first and put these teachers unions behind,” Romney said recently on Fox News Sunday.  “. . . I want there to be action taken to get the teacher unions out and to get the kids once again receiving the education they need.” 

If I didn’t know any better, I’d think Romney had just finished watching Waiting for Superman.  His belief that teachers unions are stopping public school children from receiving proper educations scores a “10” on the cliché meter and shows just how lazy he’s been when it comes to rolling up his sleeves and doing some real, evidence-based research into the many challenges facing America’s public schools. 

Teachers Unions: The Root of All Evil?

Since Romney deals in clichés (and fails to acknowledge all the good things teachers unions have done over the past 150 years, like improve conditions in schools, upgrade curriculum and teacher credentials, and make it so every child can learn to read and write, regardless of race, social class, and gender) let’s analyze the three most fashionable criticisms of teachers unions: that they give bad teachers a lifetime appointment in the classroom; that they receive cushy contracts from politicians in exchange for political support; and that they stand in the way of progress.               

As I’ve written about before (see “Ending the Myth That Tenure Protects Bad Teachers,” 3/20/12), public schools are self-regulating: teacher turnover is costing America over $7 billion annually; 17 percent of all of public school teachers quit every year; 56 percent of America’s new teachers quit within five years; and over one-quarter of America’s public school teachers have five years experience or less.  Where is the “lifetime appointment”?      

Here are the numbers behind the “cushy contracts” garnered by unions: the median salary of kindergarten teachers in 2011 was $31,500; for elementary school teachers it was $49,200; and for high school teachers it was $52,700.  As for benefits, most public school employees contribute to their pensions and medical insurance (teachers in Pennsylvania contribute 7.5 percent of every check to their pension).  This can hardly be considered “cushy”.               

As for standing in the way of progress, teachers unions opposed No Child Left Behind (but this didn’t stop it from being passed), a school reform bill that has been criticized by educational policy experts across the political spectrum for it’s over reliance on flawed test data and the narrowing of school curriculum; Romney himself said it needs to be significantly changed and reauthorized.  NCLB has been in place since 2002—over a decade—and the racial achievement gap hasn’t changed, nor has the achievement gap between the rich and the poor; the wealth gap has gotten bigger.

Teachers unions also oppose taking public tax dollars and putting them into privately operated charter schools (but this hasn’t stopped every state in America from doing it), a practice that has gotten mixed results at best. Charter schools perform no better academically than traditional schools, yet have the luxury of removing failing or disruptive students.  Financial mismanagement and lack of oversight are recurring problems for charters, and growing research is showing they are not equitable—English language learners, special needs students, and minorities are being weeded out.

Is this the “progress” critics of unions are talking about?   

 Teacher Pay: Old vs. New

Romney wants to pay new teachers more.  “We should pay our beginning teachers more,” Romney said at a recent campaign stop in Illinois. “The national unions are too interested in benefits for the older teachers.”

By “older teachers” does Romney mean the ones with the most skills and experience?  The ones that have dedicated their entire careers to their students and survived the poorest neighborhoods with the least amount of resources?  The ones that have for years paid out of their own pocket for classroom materials, endured the insanity of misguided school reform, forged lasting relationships with their students, and saved the lives of some of America’s most troubled youth?  Those “older teachers”?             

By “beginning teachers” does Romney mean the ones with less than five years experience?  The ones that studies show are still learning their craft and struggle with instruction and classroom management?  By “beginning teachers” does Romney mean the ones who enter the profession through Teach for America, over half of which quit in two years?  Or those who enter the field via the traditional route, over half of which quit in five years?    

 Class Size

Romney doesn’t think class size matters.  In other words, he doesn’t feel the need to increase educational funding, or worry about per pupil spending.  “I studied [class size],” Romney said in Illinois.  “There was no relationship between classroom size and how the kids did.” 

Really?  So there’s no difference between teaching a class of 33 or 23?  No difference in classroom management?  No difference in the amount of time for individualized instruction?  No difference in time for grading papers and contacting parents?  Or the money needed for resources and supplies?  Money for paper?  Books?  Laptops?  Field trips?  No difference between 23 and 33, huh?             

There is, of course, plenty of research that says class size does matter, like the U.S. Department of Education’s report analyzing the multitude of benefits achieved via Bill Clinton’s National Class Size Reduction Program.  And then there’s the State of Tennessee’s STAR report.    

From his recent remarks on the campaign trail it’s become obvious that Mitt Romney has limited knowledge of public education in America, and is simply using talking points to pander to his base.  Either way, he’s alienating millions of hard working school teachers across the country, and putting politics ahead of the educational interest of our nation’s children.

Ending the Myth That Tenure Protects Bad Teachers

by Christopher Paslay

High teacher attrition rates show that tenure is not preventing the bad apples from being weeded out.        

There’s a very real belief in the United States that tenure and collective bargaining are keeping large numbers of burned-out, incompetent teachers in classrooms where they rob students of their right to learn.  The Philadelphia Inquirer’s editorial “Firing bad teachers” is a case in point:

“One way to improve public education is to speed up the process to remove bad teachers from the classroom.

Unfortunately, getting rid of bad apples has become nearly impossible under union tenure rules that were crafted to protect teachers’ rights but too often deny children a decent education.

The antiquated system fails to hold teachers with a bad performance record accountable. They should not be allowed to wear tenure like a badge of honor that entitles them to a lifetime appointment in the classroom.”

Does tenure provide lousy teachers with a lifetime appointment in the classroom? 

Hardly. 

The truth is that it’s extremely difficult for an incompetent teacher to remain in the classroom for an extended period of time in the 21st century.  The idea that American public schools are housing a significant population of burned-out educators milking the system just isn’t true. 

A closer look at teacher attrition rates—as well as the profiles of America’s teachers—yields interesting results.  Here are some statistics from the 2007 policy brief “The High Cost of Teacher Turnover” and the report “Profiles of Teachers in the U.S. 2011”:

  • Teacher turnover is costing America $7.3 billion annually
  • 17% of all of public school teachers quit every year
  • 20 percent of urban teachers quit yearly
  • Over half of America’s new teachers (56%) quit within five years
  • In Philadelphia from 1999 to 2005, the teacher turnover rate (70%) was higher than the student dropout rate (42%)
  • In 2011, over a quarter of America’s public school teachers (26%) had five years experience or less 
  • 21% of America’s public school teachers are 29 years old or younger

Teacher attrition is similar when it comes to alternative certification programs and charter schools.  Over 50% of Teach for America educators leave their assignments after two years.  A study tracking teachers working for KIPP schools (Knowledge is Power Program) in the Bay Area revealed annual turnover rates which ranged from 18 percent to 49 percent from 2003-04 to 2007-08.      

The truth is, despite teacher tenure and collective bargaining by unions, public schools are not overpopulated with long term educational louses hiding in the cracks.  In fact, the notion that tenure creates a lifetime appointment for teacher incompetence is greatly exaggerated.            

America’s public school system is self-regulating.  In other words, incompetent teachers don’t last very long, as the above data shows.  The biggest factor driving bad teachers from the classroom are the kids themselves.  If teachers can’t connect with their students, if they argue, butt heads, and create a toxic learning environment, the odds are they won’t survive.  It’s too draining a situation—physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

The same is true for parents and school administrators.  Incompetent teachers are in constant disharmony with the mothers and fathers of their pupils and spend the majority of their energy battling principals.  Couple this with more rigorous classroom observations and school overhauls at the hands of No Child Left Behind, and most so-called “lousy” teachers are at the breaking point; it is all but impossible for them to hang on to their jobs for “life”.     

Bad teachers do exist, of course, but in no greater quantity than in any other profession.  You can argue test scores prove the existence of bad teachers—that an unacceptable percentage of students aren’t reading or doing math at grade-level—but does this prove teachers are lousy or incompetent?  Does the fact that homicide rates in big cities are unacceptable prove our police force is rife with deadwood?  Is our country’s unacceptable obesity rate an indictment of American nutritionists?   

Interestingly, school teachers and their unions remain society’s whipping boy.  Dom Giordano’s recent commentary, “To help Philadelphia students learn better, let’s start grading teachers,” is a prime example:     

“Unfortunately, that is why you have schools in which an all-star teacher is helping children learn and excel; next door, an incompetent teacher is protected by collective bargaining and is allowed to give kids an inferior education. We are told by their union that no difference exists. Tell that to the parents of kids stuck with the inferior teachers.”

Incompetent teacher right next door, protected by union tenure?  Sounds like someone needs to call the cliché police on Mr. Giordano, and quick.  The chances are the teacher in Giordano’s example doesn’t even exist, and if he does, the odds are that he’ll eventually be run out of his classroom by displeased parents, an angry principal, or the draining effects of disruptive students.    

Scrapping tenure isn’t going to improve the quality of America’s teachers, although it may do irreparable harm to our nation’s best educators.  Collective bargaining is simply no match for the Darwinian principle of Natural Selection.

My Experience on the Glenn Beck Show

by Christopher Paslay

When it comes to Glenn Beck, adjectives like “kook,” “nut-job,” and “right-wing radical” have a tendency to get thrown around.  At least these descriptors are used in more liberal circles—places like Philadelphia where 85 percent of the population is registered democrat.

My colleagues at Swenson Arts and Technology High School have used similar terms to describe Mr. Beck, so when I told them that I was going to be on the Glenn Beck show on Friday, May 6th, I received mixed reactions (I’ll get to my experience on the show in a moment). 

Personally, I am a fan of Glenn Beck.  Although I disagree with some of his views on education (Glenn, like most journalists and talking-heads, has a more superficial understanding of public schools), I do agree with much of what he preaches otherwise—that our country must rediscover its traditional values; that personal responsibility is the key to change; that too much reliance on government and social programs is killing America’s entrepreneurial spirit; that both the Republicans and Democrats are corrupt; and that in order to restore honor in our country we must become more principle-centered.

Interestingly, there are many people (like my mother and father) who are fans of Glenn Beck as well.  His show has dominated its time slot for nearly two years, coming in at #1 on the Neilson Ratings for most of that time and never falling below #3; for the first three months of 2011, the Glenn Beck show had an audience of almost 2 million viewers. 

So he has a sizable following.  And the core of this following is made up of well-educated, well-informed people such as my parents and myself, people with diverse experiences and opinions; we’re hardly the right-wing radical Neanderthal “nut-jobs” we’re made out to be (to those name-callers who try to pigeon-hole Beck and his supporters I offer this challenge: watch his show every day for one week and then you can sling your mud.  I mean really watch the show, watch and listen and try to see all sides of the issue).

Now back to my experience on Beck’s show.  The theme of the show was “teachers who love their jobs but are frustrated with the education system.”  It was an audience-participation show that featured 40 teachers from the tri-state area, myself and my father (who taught 37 years in the Philadelphia School District) included. 

Before the show was taped we were each given a questionnaire to complete.  It asked us, among other things, to describe the things about education that frustrated us.  It also asked our opinions about teachers’ unions, and directed us to pose questions to Glenn Beck himself. 

Here were two of my responses. 

Concerning my frustration, I wrote: Education is one of the few professions in America in which policies are written and decisions are made by governing bodies outside the field. Doctors, lawyers, and engineers all govern themselves. Their panels and boards of directors are made up of other doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Not teachers, though. Politicians make the decisions when it comes to education in K-12 schools. So do researchers, think tanks, and lobbyists. Does it matter that most of these people have little to no experience teaching in a K-12 classroom? No, because they have the data and the power.   

When it came to teachers’ unions, I wrote: Teachers unions, like everything, have pros and cons.  The pros are that they protect the rights of workers and ensure teachers don’t get exploited or taken advantage of by school administrators or politicians (which was the case many years ago).  Another positive is that they serve as a teacher’s voice—something that isn’t given much value in American society.  On the other hand, in an effort to protect rights and maintain solidarity, unions do in some cases allow bad teachers to keep their jobs.  Also, they are too heavily rooted in politics.  Teachers need unions that police themselves and are more balanced politically.

When the show began (you can watch the show below), Glenn listed our concerns and frustrations with education.  Some of them were:

  • eliminate teachers’ tenure
  • teachers unions equal political machines
  • frustration with the NEA
  • huge retirement packages
  • teachers pensions are a problem

I must admit my gut reaction to this was anger; I felt like I’d been duped.  Which teacher in the audience, I wondered, wanted tenure eliminated?  Which teacher didn’t want the pension they’d been paying into their whole career?  Which teacher wanted no union representation? 

At this point I felt that Glenn and his producers had spun a few things, to put it lightly.  Our supposed “frustrations” sounded too scripted, too much like Glenn’s preset agenda.  In fact, by the end of the show, after 40 minutes of a town-hall style discussion, I felt like the whole thing was a bait-and-switch; I left the studio more frustrated than ever. 

That was my initial perception.  The funny thing about perceptions, however, is that they are not always accurate. 

After watching the show air Friday at 5:00 pm, (after a good night’s sleep to clear my head) my overall opinion changed.  Although Glenn did steer the conversation towards promoting school vouchers and reeling-in out-of-control unions, he did keep an open mind.  In fact, he both welcomed and respected the push-back he received from many teachers in the audience, myself included. 

In retrospect, I thought the show ended up being pretty well balanced.  Even Glenn himself admitted that he supported unions (and that his mother-in-law marched with Jesse Jackson).  It was the abuse of power and corruption, he noted, that he stood against, a point I must admit is valid. 

In the end, my experience on Glenn Beck was a positive one.  I was happy to have a discussion with such an influencial man, and to represent the concerns and issues of teachers from Philadelphia as well as the rest of America.             

Please click on the video below to watch the entire episode, commercial free (my father’s comment comes at 11:58 of the tape, and my two comments come at 13:15 and 25:58).