When the National Education Association was forced this past April to take control of its South Carolina affiliate, local and national media outlets -- including Education Week, the sector's publication of record -- gave it much play. But for the nation's largest teachers union, it proved to be another embarrassing fall of one of its once-powerful affiliates.
Even as the South Carolina Education Association spent $50,000 between 2005 and 2007 to oppose school voucher plans and maintain traditional public education, the NEA unit was losing money and membership in droves. Once representing 44 percent of the Palmetto State's 39,000 teachers a decade ago, the SCEA lost nearly 10,000 members (or more than half its rank-and-file) between 1994 and 2009 -- even as the state added 10,000 new teachers during that period. Despite efforts to revamp itself -- including plans to use Web-based teleconferencing for meetings -- the local was weakened by its own incompetence and the presence of an independent teachers group.
By the time the NEA took it over, the SCEA was dependent on $800,000 in funding from national headquarters to cover its expenses. Since the takeover, the NEA hasn't exactly done much to shed light on the affiliate's problems. SCEA members only got official word of the takeover this week in a column inside Emphasis, the union's in-house publication. In a fit of understatement, the normally-fiery Mike Antonucci -- whose Education Intelligence Agency is as widely-reviled among union presidents as merit pay plans -- opined that the disclosure was: "Better late than never."
For the NEA, which also manages the day-to-day operations of its now-busted Indiana affiliate, the SCEA's decline may also be a harbinger of its own future.
The much-needed reform of America's abysmal public school systems, along with the current economic recession and long-term civil servant pension deficits, is making it difficult for the NEA and the much-smaller American Federation of Teachers to defend and justify the traditional system of near-lifetime employment, defined-benefit pensions, employer-subsidized healthcare plans, job protections and degree- and seniority-based pay scales they have won on behalf of their rank-and-file. The consensus that teacher compensation fails to reward high-quality instruction and keeps laggard teachers in their jobs also weakens the NEA's cause. A generational divide between Baby Boomers and younger instructors over layoff policies and the direction of public education, is also wreaking havoc.
But it is a spate of financial scandals and long-term missteps among NEA locals that may do most to damage confidence in the union among the very teachers who have long-sustained its coffers. As a result, teachers may find themselves revisiting the grand bargain they struck with the union of lending their support for (and acquiescence of) its aims in exchange for better pay and conditions.
WITH 3.2 MILLION MEMBERS WORKING IN most of America's schools, the NEA still menacingly wields its ability to mobilize forces outside statehouses (to the delight of local television stations and newspaper reporters) and inside classrooms (where members bond with parents who can advocate on the union's behalf). Through its state and local affiliates, the NEA is also the single-biggest donor in American politics, with $52 million in campaign donations made to local, state and congressional campaigns during the 2007-2008 election cycle. This heft, along with its longstanding role in Democratic Party politics, is one reason why President Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats are chatting up a proposed $23 billion "stimulus" plan to help school districts stave off layoffs.
Its $377 million in (often forcibly-collected) dues revenue -- more than the $344 million collected by the Service Employees International Union -- gives it the ability to wield influence within traditional education circles. The American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the trade group for the nation's university colleges of education, received $252,262 from the NEA in the 2008-2009 fiscal year, according to the union's filing with the U.S. Department of Labor. Its efforts at influencing education policy have extended beyond the classrooms of school districts, with the NEA using his coffers to help fund left-leaning groups such as the infamous ACORN (to the tune of $396,452).
But these days, that influence is doing the NEA little good.
From enacting new curricula standards to school choice measures such as charter schools, the NEA has been bested by the coterie of centrist Democrats, conservatives, libertarians and idiosyncratic left-learners who make up the school reform movement. The fact that Democrats -- including prominent liberals such as Green Dot Schools founder (and Rock the Vote cofounder) Steve Barr -- are also some of the most-prominent backers of school reform means that the NEA can no longer count on the Democratic National Committee for unquestioned support.
Obama's embrace of most of the school reform agenda first articulated by predecessors Bill Clinton and George W. Bush isn't music to NEA ears. The president has further aroused NEA ire thanks to the $4.3 billion Race to the Top initiative, which offers states to compete for at least $20 million in federal stimulus funds if they embrace reform measures as the use of student test score data in assessing teacher performance -- which it think subjects their members to unfair performance evaluations -- and ditch laws that ban such uses. Although the NEA has taken advantage of Race to the Top's emphasis on consensus to stave off the most-path-breaking of reform measures, its affiliates -- especially those in California, Illinois and Colorado -- have lost battles to reform of teacher performance management.
The current economic recession battering state and school district budgets has the NEA struggling to defend traditional teacher compensation, which has provided teachers with the ability to retire as early as age 50 (some 15 years earlier that private-sector workers) with lifetime annuities of as much as $2 million and free healthcare perks. The fact that states are wrestling with at least $650 billion (and likely, $1 trillion or more) in long-term pension deficits and retirement underfunding generated from these arrangements puts the NEA's defense of the system in a less-endearing light. So does a spate of layoffs, which involve the use of reverse seniority (or last hired-first fired) layoff policies that protect Baby Boomers (who make up 36 percent of all teachers) at the expense of younger, hungrier instructors.
THESE PROBLEMS AREN'T JUST a threat to the NEA's underlying ideology that teachers should be the dominant force in education decision-making. It also threatens the NEA's bottom line. At the heart of the relationship between the union and its rank-and-file is a grand bargain of sorts, with teachers -- many of whom as likely to vote Republican as Democrat -- supporting the NEA's political aims (and generously paying dues) almost wholeheartedly. In return, the union puts out the stops to protect long-serving teachers from layoffs, give teachers a stronger voice in school and district decisions, and assure them of perks such as workdays in which the actual time for teaching children is often less than the eight hours worked.
Starting in the 1960s, when states began requiring school districts to bargain with NEA affiliates (and those of the AFT), this deal worked out most-splendidly. The deal got better by the late 1990s as class size reduction efforts increased the size of the nation's teaching corps. This contributed to the NEA's dues growth while reducing the average class size for elementary school teachers from 26.2 students to 21.1. By 2007, for example, 25 percent of Michigan teachers and other school employees retire before age 55 while 64 percent leave before reaching 60, according to an analysis by the Detroit News.
But these days, the NEA's political losses, along with the advent of a younger generation of teachers less willing to buy into the union's creed, is forcing members to wonder about the value of their membership. The high cost of NEA membership, even as school districts lay off teacher and freeze salary increases, may also cause some to pause.
But it's a series of scandals and miscues among NEA locals -- and how the union's national leadership has dealt with them -- that may serve as the klaxon for teachers everywhere.
Last year, the NEA was forced to take control of the Indiana State Teachers Association after the affiliate's Voluntary Employee Benefit Association went insolvent amid a $67 million deficit and alleged financial mismanagement. The 50,000 members covered under the plan were miffed that ISTA didn't admit the failure until the day it announced the NEA takeover; they were disgusted after the parent union successfully increased their $449 annual dues by another $40 in order to cover the insolvency. Four members have state and federal class action suits pending against the union and the NEA demanding recovery of damages (federal and state investigations are also ongoing).
In Hawaii, the insurance division of the NEA affiliate there was forced to file for liquidation after failing to fully report its income to the state and the Internal Revenue Service. Despite being overseen by a board appointed by the affiliate's leadership, the NEA local admitted that the HSTA Member Benefit Corp. was "grossly mismanaged" to the point of owing $400,000 in back taxes and interest. Hawaii's state legislative auditor also complained that an insurance trust managed by the union didn't provide documentation needed for analysis in its annual report.
The collapse of the NEA's South Carolina affiliate may be illustrative of how teachers may organize themselves in the future. Even as the union lost members, the Palmetto State Teachers Association has grown as a strong presence in the state. Unlike the NEA, the association proclaims that it eschews collective bargaining (likely because South Carolina is one of the easiest states to attain near-lifetime employment through tenure, with just two years of time on the job). It also touts the fact that its members were named state Teacher of the Year for 14 of the last 15 years.
Certainly the NEA will remain an influential force in public education for the time being. But the future may be darker than the skin of a salamander.