Published Online: February 19, 1997


An Oligopoly With a Unique Agenda

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America's major teachers' unions are out of step with their counterparts worldwide.

America's two major teachers' unions--the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association--have received quite a bit of attention lately. But are they really any different from teachers' unions in other industrialized countries? Whether one wants to gauge this by the size and strength of the AFT and the NEA, or by their agendas--particularly on the contentious issue of school choice--the answer is an unequivocal yes.

A recent study by the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution on teacher-union democracy around the world--"teacher choice," as we call it--shows how profoundly different the NEA and the AFT are compared with their counterparts.

In America, the NEA and the AFT combined represent 82 percent of all public school teachers in collective bargaining and have 75 percent of these teachers as union members. By contrast, the average developed country in Europe, Oceana, and Asia has between four and five major teachers' unions. Unions compete for teacher loyalties, usually offering a variety of different structures, ideologies, religious leanings, and teaching methods. As an Irish teacher-union official told an AdTI researcher, "We have 17,000 teachers, and five unions. You have only two."

How different can non-U.S. unions be? Britain and Spain, for instance, have unions that forswear teacher strikes. Twenty of 21 countries studied have significant representation of religious and private school teachers, often in their own union.

If the NEA and the AFT had their way, however, there would be even less competition among America's major teachers' unions. Recent discussion of a merger between the two entities (which would effectively create a monopoly instead of the current oligopoly) has included instituting a no-raid provision. The two unions are saying that what teachers need in the future is less, not more, choice in terms of who will represent them, bringing teachers further away from the options that their counterparts worldwide have.

Concerning school choice, an issue which the unions sought to use to galvanize their members during the 1996 election, there are again sharp disparities with teachers' unions around the globe. America's unions have been bitterly opposed to publicly financed, means-tested scholarship plans, or vouchers. They have fought to prevent the implementation of plans that benefit poor children in Milwaukee and Cleveland, and pulled out all the stops to curtail other proposals that have arisen.

Keith B. Geiger, the former president of the NEA, conveyed the union hard line when he stressed that the teachers' unions must defeat choice proposals "everywhere, every time." Albert Shanker, president of the AFT, has been similarly vigilant, stating: "We need to engage in political action. That means we need to pursue relentlessly all of those who vote for privatization or vouchers. We need to follow them."

Yet, a broad survey of 48 teachers unions around the world by AdTI found that many of them are quite comfortable with school choice programs. Out of 48 unions expressing a stand, only 11 (23 percent, mostly concentrated in England, the United States, and New Zealand) strongly oppose voucher-choice systems. Seventeen (35 percent) are strongly in favor, while 20 (42 percent) are not strongly opposed or in favor, or are politically inactive.

Teacher-union officials from Sweden, Belgium, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Australia, and Denmark say choice works.

Among countries that have significant experience with them, 14 unions (52 percent) back choice-voucher plans, and 12 (41 percent) are neutral. Teacher-union officials from Sweden, Belgium, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Australia, and Denmark say choice--including, in most cases, government support for private schools--works.

As Sven Kinnander of the National Union of Teachers in Sweden noted: "We have been for the choice system. ...We welcome these schools because it creates the possibility of more than one employer for teachers."

Besides the obsession that the teacher-union hierarchy here has with opposing school choice, there are many other issues that show how distracted the leadership of the NEA and the AFT have become from serving their membership--and how out of touch the union brass truly is.

One of these is the issue of political contributions. Prior to the recent elections, the NEA bent over backwards to try and show itself to be a bipartisan organization. In a National Public Radio interview, Bob Chase, the president of the NEA, was asked about the political composition of the union's membership. He responded: "It's not majority Democratic. Our membership breaks down very similar to the general public as far as percentage being Democrat, Republican, and independent, which people don't necessarily believe or understand. But when you look at it, that is in fact the demographics."

One reason that the public might not "believe or understand" this is that the NEA has directed over 99 percent of its political contributions to Democratic Congressional candidates, particularly liberal Democrats.

Another indication of how politically out of touch the union hierarchy is with its members is evident from Washington state. A recently adopted initiative made it illegal for the Washington Education Association to automatically deduct political-action-committee contributions from members' pay. As a result, contributions fell dramatically--by 82.3 percent--from 45,000 members to 8,000.

The internal bureaucracy of the NEA and its state chapters is also daunting. A forthcoming book by Myron Lieberman estimates that the NEA and its affiliates have more than 2,000 union officers and staff earning over $100,000 a year in salary and benefits. In the Pennsylvania State Education Association alone, there are over 104 officials making more than $75,000 per year. It's difficult for many teachers in Pennsylvania, as well as the rest of us, to understand why the PSEA director of communications, for example, should have a salary of over $78,000.

Many members of the unions are also concerned with their resolutions opposing merit pay, as well as other resolutions. The NEA's agenda includes resolutions on "sexual-orientation education," animal rights, the metric system, and "meeting the needs of left-handed persons." (Yes to each, says the union.) In addition to school choice, the NEA opposes legislation making English the official language, and "visual representations using maps of the United States" that fail to "depict all 50 states and Puerto Rico in their correct geographical location and relative size."

The NEA and the AFT have come to "endorse" charter schools, albeit with significant restrictions.

Are America's two largest teachers' unions now facing the pressures that other unresponsive oligopolies encounter? While the unions have been maintaining an expansive bureaucratic empire, adopting a variety of peculiar resolutions, and engaging heavily in national politics, there has been a significant growth in independent teachers' unions and a clear lack of leadership--indeed, outright vacillation--from the unions on school choice.

Currently, there are more than 20 independent teacher associations with total membership of approximately 300,000. These groups, which have been growing significantly, provide liability insurance and other benefits to members at several hundred dollars a year less than do the AFT or NEA. ("Alternative Teachers' Groups Highlighted," Feb. 12, 1997.) Their lack of emphasis on political activity is an important reason why their dues are much more reasonable. Recent arbitration settlements have rebated hundreds of dollars to individual teachers who objected to political activities of the Washington Education Association and the California Teachers Association.

In addition, there have been signs of moderation in the NEA's position on school choice, though wholly rhetorical and symbolic. The NEA and the AFT have come to "endorse" charter schools, albeit with significant restrictions as to make such schools indistinguishable from conventional public schools. It's worth noting that many teachers are quite enthusiastic about charter schools, as applications to teach in these schools are often quite numerous. At the same time, charter schools present an important opportunity for teachers to develop professionally and improve their financial status.

Clearly, America's teachers' unions are out of step with many of their members, their institutional counterparts worldwide, and parents--particularly those whose children would receive a better education through scholarships. The unions may be thinking that they can somehow stem these trends with a merger. The powerful aspirations of teachers and parents, however, may be enough to overcome the unions' out-of-touch institutional framework. There's plenty of evidence around the world to indicate this will be the case.

Copies of the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution's research on teachers' unions worldwide can be obtained by calling the institution at (703) 351-4969.

Robert W. Kasten represented Wisconsin in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. He heads programs for the study of education, democracy, and teachers' unions at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a public-policy research group based in Arlington, Va.

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