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

State of Independence

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'We had to struggle to get an equal playing field in Georgia.'

Barbara Christmas,
executive vice president,
Professional Association of Georgia Educators

"Just because we're not the NEA doesn't mean that we're the antithesis of everything they stand for," Christmas explains. "We're moderate, leaning to conservative."

One difference emerged last year, when PAGE immediately supported legislation allowing private and nonprofit organizations to start charter schools. After some changes, the GAE came on board this session, and the measure was signed into law. Christmas argues that charter schools are one way to provide alternatives within the public education system that can meet the public's clamor for change--stopping short of vouchers, which PAGE opposes.

Kathy B. Ashe, a moderate Republican state representative who sponsored the charter bill, calls PAGE's support evidence that the organization is not just talking about school reform, but is serious about making it happen. "They're interested in possibilities," she says. "There wasn't any blanket, 'We'll just say yes.' They asked lots of questions that seemed very appropriate."

When Callahan joined PAGE, which had achieved a membership of 27,000 mostly through volunteer efforts, he focused on energizing people in the field, returning news reporters' calls, and other "nuts and bolts" of running a membership organization. Christmas toured the state, meeting newspaper editorial boards, as she concentrated on making "a real transition to approaching [PAGE] in a more businesslike manner."

Every new teacher in the state receives a gift bag from PAGE with its "Kids are Our Business" logo, a "guide to success" brochure, and a membership application. In the fall, PAGE staff members and its volunteer recruiters hit the road, visiting schools to make a five-minute pitch for their organization. Callahan has PAGE representatives in each of Georgia's 1,800 public schools who stuff mailboxes with promotional materials. They each received a blue leather bookmark as a token of appreciation this spring.

Gradually, PAGE is phasing out its "lighthouse educators"--retirees who recruited new members--in favor of full-time, paid field representatives. There's plenty of work to do: About 20 percent of Georgia teachers don't join either group.

The organization employs 24 people in its suburban Atlanta offices and 14 in the field, four of whom work full time. The staff is housed in a sprawling suburban office complex north of Atlanta, in a suite decorated in navy and burgundy tones with dark cherry furniture and leather chairs. But Christmas points out that success didn't come without a fierce struggle. In the mid-1980s, she took a year off as the principal of an elementary school to work as a recruiter for PAGE. "We had to struggle to get an equal playing field in Georgia," she recalls, noting that the union had a lock on some schools. "Some buildings we've only gotten into in the last two or three years. When I first started teaching, the principal said teachers have to join the GAE."

Now, an increasing number of school systems deduct PAGE dues automatically from teachers' paychecks, one factor that has contributed to its rapid growth. Another is PAGE's focus on growing new members by targeting young teachers. Its student arm, SPAGE, has 6,000 members in education schools throughout Georgia; they pay annual dues of $7, and just $49.99 in their first year on the job. The GAE, in contrast, reported 1,704 student members as of last August.

Christmas and Callahan have made sure that policymakers know about their growing membership, so that PAGE is represented on the state's professional-standards commission for teachers and other panels. Christmas is the vice chairwoman of Georgia's Goals 2000 panel and serves on the executive committee of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education, a coalition of business, parent, community, and education groups. She made her national debut in 1996, when she attended the education summit in Palisades, N.Y., as one of 38 "resource people" invited by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin.

But the steady rise of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators has given the Georgia Association of Educators fits.

While associations like hers are embraced in conservative circles, Christmas has supported President Clinton's Goals 2000 program and ran afoul of Phyllis Schlafly's Eagle Forum during her congressional race, earning the label "radical feminist," she says with a laugh.

Gary Ashley, the executive director of the Georgia School Boards Association, says Christmas' reputation as an educator and PAGE's "balanced approach" have been critical to its growth. "She communicates across the board," he says, "regardless of special interest or political affiliation."

But the steady rise of the Professional Association of Georgia Educators has given the Georgia Association of Educators fits. Just as Barbara Christmas came on board in 1993, the GAE staff and elected officers traveled to national headquarters in Washington to ask top union officials for help in what they called "the elimination" of PAGE. From a memo written for the meeting, however, it's clear that competition wasn't the association's only problem. It was also suffering from "almost complete" turnover among staff members and rotating top leadership, "severe financial difficulties stemming from declining membership," the sale of one of its two buildings, and escalating program and staff costs. As a solution, GAE officials asked permission to waive NEA membership dues for 10 years. "It would take a decade of all-out war to permanently eliminate [PAGE] from the educational game," the memo says.

The request was denied. But the Georgia affiliate did receive some funding to experiment with lowering dues in key locations--a strategy that didn't pan out, says Grady Yancey Jr., the president of the GAE. "We're not going to compete with PAGE with dues dollars," he says. "We believe the services we provide are worth the money."

The GAE prides itself on being able to tap the NEA's expertise, on its field staff that assists teachers locally, and on its professional lobbyists and political action committee, which has a war chest of about $140,000. "We support those who support public education by endorsing them and making sure they are re-elected," Yancey says. "For those who do not, we do all we can to make sure they are removed."

In Georgia education circles, the GAE continues to be perceived as having a leadership problem. The association spent the past year without a permanent executive director. Last month, the association hired Drew W. Allbritten from the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education for the post.

Bill Barr, the executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, notes that in association work, it's vital to project an image of growth and dynamism. In that sense, he says, PAGE has a leg up on the GAE, which "seems not to have put all the pieces together to move as a viable organization."

Vol. 17, Issue 40, Pages 40-44

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