RALEIGH — To many, the National Education Association is as synonymous with public-school teachers as the Teamsters is with truck drivers. The group boasts nationwide membership of 2.7 million people, while its state affiliate, the North Carolina Association of Educators, reportedly has nearly 50,000 active members who pay full-time dues and work in North Carolina schools. As the national organized labor movement faces defections and criticism from unsatisfied members, North Carolina teachers are doing the same. More frequently they’re turning to smaller, independent teacher groups with missions closely tied to education and less intertwined with social and political causes the NEA has championed.
The Education Intelligence Agency, a California-based group that conducts research on public education, reports that North Carolina NEA’s active membership dropped 3.1 percent from the 2002-2003 school year to the 2003-2004 year. During the same time period, the total number of teachers employed in the state — representing a large segment of the pool of education-related workers who are potential NEA members — increased by nearly 2 percent, to more than 85,500. “That’s particularly bad news” for the NEA, said EIA Director Mike Antonucci of declining active membership numbers in a state where the number of teachers and students is growing.
Or, it might be good news, depending on your view of the teacher union. Janie Neeley, who taught reading to middle-schoolers in South Carolina before leaving the profession and moving to North Carolina. She never joined the union despite pressure, she said, is placed on teachers to do so, particularly if their principal is active in the group. Neeley, who works in the school choice movement, expected a teacher organization to advocate for less bureaucracy and better working conditions. She also believes that, at times, the NEA put protecting its power structure ahead of improving student achievement. “The bottom line is, I never saw the benefits, never saw them change things,” Neeley said.
She was also put off by the NEA’s liberal social and political positions and said many teachers she knows are more conservative than those positions suggest. A visit to the NEA’s web site illustrates her point. The “Issues in Education” feature on the site (www.nea.org) includes the “Wake-Up WalMart” campaign, which the union describes as “designed to educate the public about the effects of Wal-Mart on its employees, their communities and the economy, as well as the anti-public education activities of founder Sam Walton’s family.”
Whether the NEA’s anti-Wal-Mart stance and other politically charged positions mirror the views of the rank-and-file isn’t as clear. An EIA analysis of the NEA’s two latest member surveys shows individual members reflect the political split of the country. Yet, union members who ascend to positions of local authority and decision-making are more likely to hold liberal beliefs.
“If you are an NEA member, your local president is more likely to be a liberal than you are and those odds grow along with the size of your local,” Antonucci wrote in the report, “The NEA Pyramid”. He said that it wouldn’t be fair to say NEA positions don’t reflect its membership, but “the preponderance of the evidence suggests that the organization intensifies members’ positions, sometimes to extremes, and always in a leftward direction.”
The NEA’s left-leaning policy pronouncements on social issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, and the United Nations are among the reasons teachers are joining non-union teacher groups, said Tracy Bailey, director of National Projects for the Association of American Educators. Issues of “choice and conscience,” Bailey said, don’t directly affect education and thus, his group doesn’t take a position. Bailey describes AAE, which has fewer than 1,000 North Carolina members, as a professional organization much like the American Bar Association or American Medical Association. The difference, he explained, goes well beyond IRS tax designation. “Our teachers view themselves as academic professionals, not union members,” Bailey said. “Most professions — lawyers, doctors, scientists, engineers — are not represented by a union.”
Jim Stegall agrees that how a teacher perceives his or her job dictates which group will be of interest. Stegall, immediate past president of the Professional Educators of North Carolina, said the NCAE views teachers the same as it does employees in other fields: as workers. In contrast, he said, PENC considers teaching a distinct profession whose mission is equally unique. “We put the school children first. It forms all our decisions on policy, everything,” he said of PENC’s work on behalf of 7,000 members statewide. PENC Executive Director Ellen Greaves said the organization also appeals to teachers because it collaborates with other groups, while the union works on its own.
PENC is also nonpartisan, as is the AAE. But there is serious debate over the NEA’s status. Last year, the NEA confirmed that an IRS audit of the group’s political spending and reporting was under way, following allegations by the Landmark Legal Foundation that the union, which is tax-exempt, was spending money improperly. Antonucci said the IRS and the U.S. Department of Labor are still looking at the issue.
Independent, non-union teacher groups have existed for years, yet some teachers aren’t aware they have choices beyond the NEA/NCAE. That’s a problem, according to Judy Kidd, president of the Classroom Teachers Association, which Kidd said has thousands of members in North Carolina. She believes teachers — particularly those just entering the classroom — shouldn’t teach without an organization’s support, particularly because teachers need liability insurance in today’s litigious society. “Parents and others — first thing they say is they want to sue you,” Kidd said of the possibilities for lawsuits, which include the accusation that a teacher improperly restrained a child.
Bailey believes that when teachers analyze the insurance coverage and lower membership fees charged by independent groups, they will embrace alternatives that are a better match to their view of the profession. “Many, many teachers tell us the only thing keeping them in the NEA/NCAE was liability insurance,” he said.
Donna Martinez is an associate editor of Carolina Journal.