Published Online: February 12, 1997

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Alternative Teachers' Groups Highlighted

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Washington

While NEA President Bob Chase unveiled his new union agenda at the National Press Club here last week, some little-known alternative teachers' groups had their own high-profile platform on Capitol Hill.

Representatives from the independent groups spoke at a conference titled "Education Reforms--Despite the NEA and the AFT," sponsored by the Arlington, Va.-based Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a conservative think tank.

Held in a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing room, the conference provided a forum for teachers' union opponents who criticize the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers for their collective political muscle, opposition to voucher programs, and limited endorsement of charter schools. Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich., the chairman of the education panel's Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee, gave the opening remarks.

The conference threw a national spotlight on the low-profile, but apparently growing, population of teachers who have declined membership in the country's two major teachers' unions and have instead joined local teacher associations. According to the de Tocqueville Institution, about 300,000 teachers belong to such organizations in 20 states.

Gary Beckner, the president of the Mission Viejo, Calif.-based Association of American Educators, told participants that independent associations like his 6,200-member group are "one of the best-kept secrets in America." But the "potential universe" of teachers in such independent groups, Mr. Beckner said, could someday be as high as 1.5 million teachers.

By contrast, the NEA represents 2.2 million teachers, while the AFT has a membership of 900,000.

"We're not anti-union," Mr. Beckner asserted. "We just think unions should stick to what they do best, which is negotiating better wages for those who want to join them."

Offering Options

The mission of the AAE, according to its literature, is to "encourage and empower teachers who embrace similar views on education." Membership fees in the AAE are $99 a year, compared with an average of $200 to $300 a year for the mainstream unions. That $99 covers liability insurance for teachers, and no part of the dues are used for political action committees, Mr. Beckner said.

Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the Clarkston, Ga.-based Professional Association of Georgia Educators, another independent association, told conference attendees that his group provides an alternative to the major unions in that it does not attempt to stake out social-policy positions. "I sleep well at night knowing I'm never going to have to answer, 'What's the PAGE position on abortion?' 'What's the PAGE position on gun control?'" he said.

PAGE, which counts its members at 41,000, claims to have surpassed the membership of Georgia's NEA affiliate, which has 32,438 members. The NEA's controversial stands on issues such as Lesbian and Gay History Month have boosted support for groups like PAGE, said Mr. Callahan, who called the national union "our best recruiters." ("NEA Backing for Gay Month Sparks Firestorm," Oct. 25, 1995.)

Bigger Aspirations?

But the speakers acknowledged the contradiction that independent teachers' associations face as they seek to recruit new members: If they become too large, they run the risk of turning into massive institutions like the ones they claim they are helping teachers avoid.

Mr. Beckner pointed out that some independent associations in larger states have written into their bylaws a resolution not to affiliate with any national group. His task, as he sees it, is to persuade such groups that "it would be good to have a national hub."

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators generally avoids national issues, and its leaders are mindful that most action on education issues ultimately takes place at the state level, Mr. Callahan said.

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