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Texas Teacher Count Does Not Add Up, Union Says

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Texans have always believed that bigger is better. And now a group that represents state teachers who oppose unions says it has bragging rights.

The Association of Texas Professional Educators claims it has outgrown its chief rival, the state affiliate of the National Education Association.

The nonunion group is about 70,000 strong. Its members say that figure puts it on top of the Texas State Teachers' Association, the N.E.A. affiliate.

Now, the professional educators say, they are no longer a voice in the wilderness.

"I think we have grown because we are truly in touch with where education is in Texas," said Gayla Langley, a high school counselor in Monahans, Tex., and the president of the group.

"We're very professional and more concerned with the needs of the student," she said.

The union, however, is not buying that argument. Its leaders say the nonunion group's assertion of numerical superiority is just a tall tale.

"Their claim is just dead wrong," said Ermalee Boice, the deputy executive director of the union, which says it has about 90,000 members. "I don't know what they base their figures on."

Nonunion groups like the Association of Texas Professional Educators have gained ground in California, Indiana, Ohio, and at least a dozen other states. Teachers join such groups because of political differences with the union or opposition to strikes and collective-bargaining tactics.

But nonunion groups tend to have their strongest presence in places like Texas, where right-to-work laws already limit union powers, said Cathy Jones, the director of Concerned Educators Against Forced Unionism, an arm of the National Right to Work Committee in Springfield, Va.

State of Independence

In Texas, the anti-union movement may owe some of its power to misgivings about the strong ties between the Democratic party and unions, particularly the giant N.E.A.

"People there have a very strong sense of independence," Ms. Jones said, citing concerns about the union's tradition of taking liberal positions on social and political issues.

The professional educators' group was launched about 15 years ago, not long after the state teachers' union voted to unify, requiring members to belong to the local, state, and national organizations, said Larry Comer, the public-relations director for the A.T.P.E.

What began as a small, alternative group has steadily grown, claiming an average increase of 4,000 to 5,000 members a year. This year, the group--which includes administrators, paraprofessionals, and others--expects to grow by about 7,000, Mr. Comer said.

"We keep going up in membership," Mr. Comer said. "We just let that speak for itself."

But state union officials said the professional educators' group is playing fast and loose with the numbers.

The N.E.A.'s national handbook puts the Texas affiliate's membership at about 63,000, but Ms. Boice said the figure is much higher.

The N.E.A. numbers do not account for people with life memberships, which were sold before the vote to unify in the mid-1970's, she said.

"They've made these claims before," Ms. Boice said of the alternative group. "People in Texas pretty much just ignore them."

Fight for the Spotlight

But the professional educators' group says the state can no longer ignore its members. The group says it is not the minority, but the voice of the state's teachers, which number more than 225,000.

While the alternative group may have struggled to get noticed in the past, it may be closer to grabbing the limelight in the state's increasingly conservative political climate.

"The average Texas teacher is a churchgoing, teetotaling" citizen, a former A.T.P.E. official said. "I don't know how the union gets away with endorsing candidates on almost a straight [Democratic] party line."

The A.T.P.E. has steered clear of political maneuvers, according to Mr. Comer, who said his group is split in half by party affiliation. "We could never survive if we endorsed one particular party."

While that neutrality has attracted new members, some say the group's hesitancy to speak out often leaves it in the shadows.

"We get the media attention because we do things," Ms. Boice of the Texas State Teachers Association said. "We're active in every arena where education is important."

The rival group "is a cheap-dues organization that basically just provides insurance," she argued. "They have nothing to say."

Texas is home to other teachers' groups that vie for membership: the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, a smaller nonunion organization, and the Texas Federation of Teachers, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

Although the unions and professional educators' groups have joined forces on some issues, such as opposition to a pilot school-voucher program in the state, the disagreement over membership numbers only seems to increase the distance between them.

"I don't think we'll have lunch" any time soon, Mr. Comer of the A.T.P.E. said.

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