DeGrow: Union flailing against improving student outcomes, empowered teachers
July 15, 2014
The thousands of delegates who gathered in Denver last week for National Education Association's annual Representative Assembly felt more than just the summer heat. A continuing loss of members and some major rebukes from the courts has kept on the pressure.
Still, the nation's largest teachers union refuses to change its tune. Rather than police the profession and respect individual teacher rights, the politically powerful NEA is trying to change the subject.
At the 2009 Assembly in San Diego, retiring NEA chief counsel Bob Chanin candidly stated the union's core priorities in an address well received by delegates. He declared the group's interest in helping improve student outcomes "must not be achieved at the expense of due process, employee rights, or collective bargaining."
The five years since Chanin's speech have soured NEA's fortunes, though the union still wields substantial power. During that time, the union's active national membership has dropped by nearly 10 percent.
New laws in a handful of states have given individual educators more freedom to decide whether to contribute to the union. Over union objections, some educators have been unchained from coercive policies.
Just last week, a judicial omen strongly suggested future potential hits on the NEA's bottom line. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Harris v Quinn that Illinois no longer can force home health care providers (including family caregivers) to pay fees to the state employees' union.
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Sensing a dangerous precedent, departing NEA president Dennis Van Roekel publicly defended mandatory agency fees imposed on non-union teachers as "a common-sense, straight-forward way to ensure fairness and protect equity and individual rights."
The NEA leader failed to clarify how "individual rights" are protected by forcing someone to pay for services they don't want.
In Colorado, teachers generally don't have to pay union fees to keep employment. A small number of districts, though, require teachers who never joined the union to send an annual opt-out letter by a September deadline or pay full union "dues equivalency." Educators should have the freedom to choose their associations without such onerous obligations.
Even if laws stripped away all the prerogatives of union agency fees, the NEA likely would be able to maintain its nearly 40-year-old "unified dues structure" policy. Every educator who joins a local Colorado union automatically pays annual dues to the state and national union as well.
Surveys of teachers have shown the NEA to be far less popular than local unions. Yet $182 per full-time member paid this year to the NEA is part of an all-or-nothing proposition.
Also putting the heat on is a series of state reform laws (led by Colorado) that effectively weaken the union's ability to defend poorly performing tenured teachers. Union leaders have done little more than slow or water down most efforts to challenge state-enforced special job protections.
A recent Colorado judicial decision has only left them in a more difficult position.
On June 6, a Denver judge tossed out a union complaint that a 2010 reform law violates teachers' rights. The Colorado Education Association (CEA) was upset the law gave principals veto power over which instructors serve in their schools. The new "mutual consent" policy was designed to end the "Dance of the Lemons," the repeated reassignment of poor performers to different buildings and classrooms.
Union brass has pledged to appeal the case. Meanwhile, this year's NEA Assembly preserved a longstanding resolution that "state laws must provide for the continuing employment and/or tenure of state and/or local education employees." The CEA's state policy guide similarly prioritizes the protection of "due process."
Instead of moderating its positions, the union spent its Denver stay exploiting parents' growing concerns about standardized testing. Rallying behind the slogan of "Toxic Testing," delegates voted to harden the union's opposition to the use of student assessment results in teacher evaluations. Van Roekel told the assembly their organization needs to define the terms of educational accountability.
Many teachers who are not in lockstep with the NEA may disagree. After all, combining weaker accountability with tenure protections would make it easier to leave many students behind.
Ben DeGrow is senior education policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.