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Published in Print: June 17, 1998, as State of Independence

State of Independence

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With more than 44,000 members and growing, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators is giving the NEA affiliate a run for its money.

Atlanta

Over lunch at a trendy Italian eatery a few blocks from the gold-leaf dome of Georgia's Capitol, Barbara Christmas spots a familiar face. She excuses herself to go over and shake hands with a state legislator, one of the many acquaintances she encounters as she makes her rounds lobbying for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

As she returns to her seat, Christmas explains that she knows the lawmaker from the "bird suppers" held each year by a tight-knit group of influential Georgians--overwhelmingly men. She's one of the few women privileged to be invited to these quail roasts, thanks to the longstanding ties Christmas forged growing up on the grounds of the maximum-security prison in Reidsville. Her father's job as warden was a political one that often took him to Atlanta.

Now, years later, his daughter treads the same corridors on behalf of PAGE, the acronym by which her organization is known. In the past five years, Christmas and her staff have turned the group into a force to be reckoned with in this state where teachers are barred from collective bargaining. Using a potent combination of smart organizational work, a welcome message for union-wary teachers, and Christmas' visibility, they've built PAGE's membership to more than 44,000. At last count, it exceeded that of the Georgia affiliate of the National Education Association by some 11,000 members.

The group has gained 17,000 members since Christmas and Tim Callahan, the association's director of membership and public relations, were hired in 1993. Christmas--a former teacher, award-winning principal, and school board member--was fresh from an unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives. Callahan and his wife had recently moved to Georgia from Washington, where he'd worked for the Aspen Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, and the National Association of State Boards of Education.

PAGE is one of the "big three" independent state teacher organizations, along with those in Texas and Missouri. Together, the three have some 174,000 members; each is larger than the NEA affiliate in its state.

Their origins date to the National Education Association's insistence in the 1970s that members pay unified local, state, and national dues in order to belong. The move--which coincided with the rise of collective bargaining and teacher militancy in schools--didn't sit well with the founders of PAGE. In 1975, they incorporated a new organization that could provide teachers with liability insurance without what one called the NEA's "unionistic" tactics. And they could do it for far less, because members didn't have to pay national dues.

Leaders of such independent teacher groups, whose combined membership is estimated at between 250,000 to 300,000 in 21 states, see another turning point today. If the delegates to the NEA and American Federation of Teachers conventions vote next month to unite and affiliate with the AFL-CIO, the independent associations will be inundated with new members alienated by the link with big labor, some teacher leaders predict. Christmas wrote this spring that a merger could persuade "hundreds, perhaps thousands" of

Georgia educators who have remained loyal to the NEA affiliate to switch to PAGE.

Robert J. Gilchrist, the president of the Iowa State Teachers Association, an NEA affiliate that opposes a merger, agrees. The 800-member Professional Educators of Iowa is "just waiting to send out a mailing," Mr. Gilchrist, who is running for the NEA's executive committee, wrote on a World Wide Web site devoted to the topic.

PAGE is one of the "big three" independent state teacher organizations, along with those in Texas and Missouri.

Whether teachers would defect in appreciable numbers is questionable, though. In states with strong collective bargaining laws--such as California and much of the Midwest and Northeast--independent groups face stiff obstacles to organizing new members. "Exclusive representation" arrangements, for example, allow unions to bargain for all teachers, regardless of membership, and to charge "agency fees" to nonmembers for those services.

While conservatives frequently trumpet the virtues of independent teacher organizations, it's not clear that ideology or politics plays a role in most teachers' decisions to join. Instead, the bottom line appears to be financial. PAGE's focus, for example, is on providing high-quality services to its members at a fair price. In Georgia, membership in the Georgia Association of Educators, the NEA affiliate, costs teachers about $290 a year; page dues are just $99. As Callahan puts it: "I win on the pocketbook. Their hearts and minds come over time."

PAGE's founders, a number of whom were administrators, were dedicated to the idea that educators should have a choice of organizations to join. The association's membership today is made up primarily of teachers, but it includes about 2,000 administrators and a similar number of bus drivers and cafeteria workers, Callahan says.

Members who buy into the group's philosophy oppose collective bargaining, strikes, sickouts, school closings, and other "militant" tactics.

Unlike the state NEA affiliate, PAGE doesn't have a political action committee and doesn't endorse candidates for public office. But Christmas--who was the Democratic nominee for Congress from Georgia's 1st District in 1992--would never argue that education isn't political. Every fall, PAGE members invite state lawmakers to hear teachers' concerns in 14 regional meetings. During the legislative session, Christmas and two lobbyists work the Capitol. And she's already met with three of the five candidates running in November to replace Gov. Zell Miller, a Democrat who has increased teachers' salaries by 6 percent each of the past four years.

The difference between her association and the Georgia Association of Educators, says Christmas, PAGE's executive vice president, "is that we stick to education issues and don't get caught up in gun control."

In some ways, the two organizations aren't far apart. They each offer members $1 million worth of professional-liability insurance, a major reason teachers join either group in the first place. But members of the nea affiliate also can take advantage of discounts on credit cards, life insurance, and other benefits arranged through both their state and national organizations.

On education policy matters, both groups have strongly supported higher salaries for teachers, boosting teachers' retirement benefits, and improving student discipline. They both sponsor workshops to help members pass the state licensing examination and to become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.

Vol. 17, Issue 40, Pages 40-44

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