The Public Policy

Beyond Collective Bargaining

Regardless of Wisconsin, the NEA and AFT still have many cards to play.

By 2.25.11

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One would think that Alabama, a state in which teachers unions don't have the power to force school districts into collective bargaining, would be a bastion of school reform. But within the past year or so, the National Education Association's Cotton State affiliate has shown there's more to wielding influence than sitting at negotiating tables.

In November 2009, then-Gov. Bob Riley and school reformers, looking to push for school choice (and to get a share of the $4.3 billion in federal money provided by President Barack Obama's Race to the Top school reform effort) attempted to advance school choice by ending the Cotton State's status as one of the few states that don't allow public charter schools. At the time, Riley declared: "This gives us an opportunity to do something that 40 states say has made a tremendous difference in the quality of education."

Three months later, Riley's effort went to seed as the NEA affiliate and local school districts convinced committees in both houses of the legislature to kill the charter school bill. By mid-year, the union all but assured that charter schools would never be a part of any governor's plans in the near future by backing both winners of the state's Democratic and Republican primaries, including Robert Bentley, the eventual winner.

This should give pause to both school reformers and those looking to clip the wings of other public sector unions by rooting for efforts by governors such as Wisconsin's Scott Walker and legislatures in Ohio and other states to abolish collective bargaining requirements. Ending forced labor negotiations can weaken the influence of teachers unions. But through the sheer force of campaign war chests, armies of rank-and-file teachers, and strong alliances with other defenders of traditional public education, the NEA and its sister union, the American Federation of Teachers, still retain more than enough influence to thwart efforts to end the compensation deals that has made teaching even more lucrative than other professions in the public sector.

School reformers and foes of public sector unions will need to take on all aspects of union influence in order to achieve their respective goals -- including taking on the other ways the NEA and the AFT, along with their allies, influence education policy and even control school spending.

The battles over collective bargaining come as state governments struggle to close $260 billion in budget shortfalls in this fiscal year and 2011-2012, and wrestle with the long-term costs of traditional teacher compensation -- including at least $1 trillion in teachers' pension deficits and another $400 billion or so in unfunded retired teacher healthcare costs. The recognition that traditional teacher compensation is ineffective at rewarding high-quality teachers and spurring student achievement has also given impetus to restricting collective bargaining (and the pay raises that teachers unions tend to win at the negotiating table).

At the same time, the nation's school reform movement has succeeded in fully exposing the low quality of America's public schools. For taxpayers and legislators, the steady evidence of academic failure -- including yesterday's news that 44 percent of fourth-graders in the nation's 14-largest cities (and 29 percent of all American students) scored Below Basic on the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress -- and efforts by teachers union locals to protect poor-performing teachers (including the push by the AFT's Beltway local to reinstate 75 teachers tossed out last year by D.C. Public Schools) are proof enough that the defenders of traditional public education can no longer be trusted with schools or children.

There is plenty that is appealing to many school reformers and to those generally opposed to organized labor about abolishing collective bargaining. For states and districts, it would weaken the clout of the NEA and AFT in structuring work rules, compensation deals, and layoff policies that have made it difficult for them to move toward private sector-style performance management and to ditch degree- and seniority-based pay scales, which have long ago been proven ineffective in improving student achievement. More importantly, it would also allow for school reformers, especially those in big-city districts, to move more aggressively on reform. This is because NEA and AFT locals tend to use their campaign cash essentially to pick the winners in school board elections, thus ending up on both sides of the negotiating table.

But the clout of the NEA and AFT doesn't rest on collective bargaining and school board races alone. Despite their weakened status, the two unions remain the biggest players in federal and state elections; they ladled out $59 million in campaign donations during the 2009-2010 election cycle and $277 million over the past 11 years, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. Although last year's spending spree was largely a bust, the unions managed to throw their weight around for high impact, including spending $1 million on an ad blitz that helped defeat D.C. mayor Adrian Fenty in his bid for re-election.

This spending, along with the rank-and-file members they deploy, also allow the NEA and AFT (along with smaller unions) to wield tremendous clout in state legislatures even in the few states in which they cannot technically conduct collective bargaining or where union influence is at first glance rather weak -- and structure state laws and policies that restrict what school districts can actually do. In South Carolina, the otherwise-floundering NEA affiliate there, along with other unions and professional associations, have successfully opposed school reform efforts and have continued to make it one of the easiest states for teachers to gain near-lifetime employment through tenure. Virginia's NEA local also wields significant influence, including helping to weaken the effort by Gov. Bob McDonnell's last year to ease the rules restricting the expansion of charter schools.

As I noted in a 2008 study I co-wrote for the National Council on Teacher Quality, the NEA and AFT long ago mastered the art of using their war chests and lobbying heft to enact state laws governing many of the key aspects of teachers' contracts. Near-lifetime employment in the form of tenure, for example, is covered in the contracts of just a third of the nation's 100 largest districts. Rules for dismissing teachers are often not even covered in contracts. If anything, lobbying and campaigning actually works better for their cause than collective bargaining because they no longer have to slog through negotiations with hundreds of districts. Through their influence on legislators, they can simply have state laws crafted that are more to their liking.

Meanwhile the NEA and AFT share common cause with allies who are just as opposed to the school reform movement. Suburban school districts have spent the past two decades opposing expansion of charter schools, and have been among the loudest foes of standards-and-accountability moves such as the No Child Left Behind Act. The two unions have also spent millions of member dues on subsidizing like-minded groups. The National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, which lobbies on behalf of the nation's university colleges of education, has benefitted from more than $1.5 million in NEA funding between 2005-2006 and 2009-2010, according to the union's disclosures to the U.S. Department of Labor. Another beneficiary, the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute (whose studies always manage to support NEA positions), has received $1.3 million in union largesse.

What school reformers and foes of public sector unions must do is attack the very pools of money that help sustain NEA and AFT coffers. Most of the $622 million in dues collected by the two unions is forcibly collected; ending automatic deductions, as Wisconsin's Gov. Walker seeks to do, would go a long way in reducing the financial clout. So would restricting the use of school funding for subsidizing teachers union activity; in New York State, for example, the AFT affiliate there is allowed to provide teacher training in school districts through its Education & Learning Trust.

So long as the NEA and AFT have the dollars and the bodies to push for their cause, they will remain a key (if increasingly less-relevant) influence in education policy. School reformers and those seeking to end the drag of public sector unions on taxpayers altogether need to focus more on mounting the kind of lobbying and campaigning that will end this influence (and overhaul the teaching profession) in the long run. That's if the bipartisan coalition of centrist Democrats and conservatives that have long fought for reform can hold.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.