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Groups To Unite To Speak as Alternative to Unions

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A loose coalition of independent associations of nonunion educators has taken the first steps toward incorporation in an attempt to become a national alternative to the dominant teachers' unions.

Meeting last month in South Carolina, the National Conference of Independent Professional Education Associations adopted bylaws and explored funding sources with an eye to incorporating in the Washington area by the end of the year and eventually opening a national headquarters with a full-time director.

"We need to inform national elected officials that there are groups out there that represent educators who are not part of the [National Education Association] or [the American Federation of Teachers],'' Doug Rogers, the executive director of the 54,000-member Association of Texas Professional Educators, said in an interview. His group is the largest affiliate of the national conference.

"If we become nationally recognized, we can have a voice at the table in policymaking,'' added Davis Bingham, the executive director of Professional Educators of North Carolina. "Right now, although we have a national conference, we're not solidified enough and funded enough to become a national factor.''

The group's leaders say that between 150,000 and 200,000 educators belong to independent professional associations, primarily the statewide organizations in Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and West Virginia. Those groups are all affiliated with the national conference; unaffiliated statewide associations exist in seven other states.

Although small compared with the N.E.A.'s 2.1 million members and the A.F.T.'s 780,000, the independent groups' combined numbers are "beginning to be a formidable block,'' Mr. Bingham said.

"We are the wave of the future,'' Mr. Binghman asserted. He predicted that the North Carolina group's membership would grow from its current 3,000 to 15,000 in four years.

'Uninterrupted' Education

The largest independent associations are in "right to work'' states, where members have come together primarily because of their opposition to collective bargaining. The members have lobbied vigorously--and usually successfully--when lawmakers in their states have considered legislation allowing collective bargaining and binding arbitration for teachers and other public employees.

"We vary in degree on some issues,'' said Polly Broussard, the national conference's chairman and the executive director of Associated Professional Educators of Louisiana. "But the strongest bond that holds us together is our opposition to the unionization of our schools.''

Jack Acree, the executive vice president of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, said his organization's aim is to ensure students an "uninterrupted'' education.

"And I want to place all the emphasis I can on the word 'uninterrupted,' '' Mr. Acree said. "That means we are against walkouts, strikes, or any other union tactics that interfere even one minute with the education of boys and girls.''

The groups also criticize the N.E.A. and the A.F.T. for taking positions on noneducational issues and for participating in political campaigns.

"Our premise has been that we deal with educational issues,'' Ernest Page, the executive director of West Virginia Professional Educators, said. "We find that the unions take positions on abortion and everything else.''

Groups Reporting Growth

The Palmetto State Teachers Association, formed in 1976 in South Carolina, is the oldest of the currently operating independent professional teachers' groups. Most of the others started in the late 1970's and early 1980's, partly in response to the rapidly growing strength and membership of the national unions.

The anti-union sentiment has some of its roots in the 1960's and 1970's, when the N.E.A.--which had traditionally seen itself primarily as a professional association--increasingly emphasized such issues as collective-bargaining rights. The A.F.T., which is a member of the A.F.L.-C.I.O., has always been closely identified with the labor-union movement.

Today, some of the independent associations are attracting as many as 2,000 new members a year, according to the groups' leaders. The Missouri State Teachers Association, with 30,000 members, and the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, with 24,000, are the largest groups after the one in Texas.

The national conference began in 1989 and now meets twice a year, including every July in Washington, in conjunction with Concerned Educators Against Forced Unionism, a division of the National Right to Work Committee. The organizations are not formally affiliated, but members and employees of Concerned Educators helped set up many of the state associations of independent educators, according to Jo Seker, the director of Concerned Educators.

Indiana is one of the few collective-bargaining states with an active independent educators' group. The Indiana Professional Educators has focused on the issue of "fair share'' fees, which nonunion teachers must pay to support the costs of union bargaining in their districts. The group argues that the fees are excessive because they support the unions' partisan activities, and it has filed lawsuits challenging the amounts.

The Indiana group recently opposed a bill passed by the legislature that would form an autonomous, teacher-majority professional-standards board for the state. (See Education Week, Feb. 19, 1992.)

The 1,000-member group fears members of the teachers' unions would dominate the board.

National Voice Sought

Likewise, on the national level, representatives of the independent associations express concern about the unions' influence on such panels as the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. One priority of a strengthened National Conference of Independent Professional Education Associations will be getting its members represented on the national board and other national committees that include educators, Ms. Broussard, the conference's chairman, said.

Fourteen spots on the 63-member teaching-standards board are reserved for N.E.A. and A.F.T. members, while teachers and other educators hold 28 additional positions, according to Carrie Bachman, a communications staff associate for the board.

"We are not union-dominated; we are teacher-dominated,'' she said, adding that no one is excluded from the board.

Representatives of the national unions express little concern about their opponents' national ambitions.

"We don't feel any threat from them,'' said Bruce Goldberg, the A.F.T.'s associate director of public affairs. "Our concern is not in battling these people. Our concern is in making sure we have an educational system in this country that can take us successfully into the 21st century.''

Kris Hanselman, the N.E.A.'s director of affiliate services, acknowledged that the independent associations appeal to many teachers, especially those with more conservative views and others who are uncomfortable with the idea of labor-management conflict in schools.

But the groups' minimal fees prevent them from offering the services provided by the unions, she said.

Union dues may be as high as $500 a year in some cases. The independent groups' membership fees range from $65 to about $100; they cover such benefits as liability insurance and association publications. The state groups also hold annual meetings and workshops that focus on teaching, curriculum, and other education-related issues.

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