Education Opinion

How Does a Partisan Teachers’ Union Fairly Represent All of Its Members?

By Barbara Ballou — October 10, 1984 3 min read

For the National Education Association to endorse the Mondale-Ferraro ticket may be politically expedient--indeed it probably is--but, at least in the eyes of this retired schoolteacher, it is unprofessional and improper. Without secret-ballot votes, it seems to me that no union is justified in coming out on behalf of its membership for particular candidates; indeed, after such a vote, support for each candidate should be announced in percentage terms. But the NEA compounds the general impropriety. The nature of its membership dictates--or should dictate--that as a union it leave elective politics alone.

It strikes me as strange that apparently no one has pointed out the unique position of a teachers’ union, especially of the NEA, which is considerably larger than its rival, the American Federation of Teachers. Law requires that parents send their children to school. The preponderant majority of children attend public schools, which all of us, directly or indirectly, must support with our taxes, whether we are parents or not--and whether or not we are in the small minority of parents who choose to send our children to a nonpublic school.

Not only do millions of American parents consider themselves Republican; thousands, if not tens of thousands, of public-school teachers are Republican as well. Yet in many districts these teachers must join the union on local, state, and national levels. Is it right that their dues be used to support candidates opposing the candidates of their personal choice? Can the few in leadership positions in the NEA (or AFT) justly presume to speak for them?

Today’s youths may view their teachers more critically and with greater sophistication than we who were young a generation or two ago viewed ours. Yet for many young people the adults who teach them exert appreciable influence. When a politically aware student asks his or her teacher why teachers hate the President of the United States, what should that teacher responsibly reply? Is political partisanship in the nation’s public schools any more in line with our founding fathers’ intent than a moment of silence at the start of the school day?

Once upon a time, the NEA was a professional organization genuinely concerned with educational issues; in recent years it has become increasingly and unabashedly a union out for all it can get for teachers, promoting ever greater federal involvement both in financing and in legislative control. Anyone who sees the provision of schooling for the nation’s young in a different light is caricatured as anti-education.

If the NEA’s political bias grows ever more blatant, accompanied by an increasing activism, one can hardly blame parents of other political persuasions and different educational philosophies if in ever larger numbers they withdraw their children from the public schools and vote down school taxes at each opportunity. In the ultimate analysis, parents must decide what they want for their children and whom they wish to employ as their children’s trusted instructors.

I would be the last to suggest that individual teachers should not become involved politically by working for candidates whose views they support; it is their right and privilege as American citizens. But it is quite a different matter when organizations, which an individual may be required to join if he or she would teach in the nation’s public schools, presume to represent politically more than two million men and women who have a powerful influence on the children of all of the people. It would be no less unprofessional and improper for a teachers’ union to come out in support of the candidacy of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 1984 edition of Education Week as How Does a Partisan Teachers’ Union Fairly Represent All of Its Members?