State of Independence
|With more than 44,000 members and growing, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators is giving the NEA affiliate a run for its money.|
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.
'We had to struggle to get an equal playing field in
"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."
|The rivalry between the two associations can get intense.|
The rivalry between the two associations can get intense. Two years ago, the GAE newsletter published a photo of Gov. Zell Miller signing a bill that both had supported: salary increases and fee payments for teachers who earn certification from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. Christmas' face was expunged with a blob of white--a bit of editing that earned the GAE ridicule in the now-defunct pages of Georgia Times, a weekly that circulated around the capital.
Georgia newspapers again took note last fall when Yancey, who is black, drew attention to the racial composition of PAGE's founders, most of whom were white. The problem, he maintains, is that PAGE's board and staff "are not representative of the diversity of its members, if PAGE, indeed, does have several black members."
PAGE doesn't keep track of the race or ethnicity of its members, but Christmas says she "guarantees" that it's representative of the teaching force. Still, some PAGE supporters understand why black educators might feel special loyalty to the GAE, which was forged in the late 1960s out of a merger of the state's white and black teacher organizations. The National Education Association, notes Franklin Shumake, a longtime Georgia educator and former GAE president who is a consultant to PAGE, has a history of being sensitive to minority educators' concerns. "But there wasn't any effort on the other side of the fence to discourage their involvement at all," he says of PAGE.
In 1983, Shumake got involved with PAGE, attracted by what he describes as its emphasis on professionalism rather than collective bargaining. He also concluded that an organization that united both teachers and administrators was a better fit for Georgia.
To the contrary, the GAE has long complained that PAGE is unduly influenced by its administrator members, whom Yancey says pressure teachers into joining. The GAE also accuses its rival of taking unfair credit for legislation that benefits teachers and students. Yancey doesn't mince words when he calls PAGE a "parasitic organization gaining from GAE's efforts in the legislature."
Tim Callahan says that PAGE's lobbyists log countless hours at the Capitol during the session. But the association makes no apologies for taking what he calls "a team approach" rather than focusing only on teachers.
Yancey accuses PAGE of failing to provide local assistance to teachers. As an example, he cites a recent high-profile controversy in Cherokee County involving a school board member, Tim Moxley, who obtained teachers' W-2 wage and tax statements and kept them for a week. The GAE requested and was granted a hearing by Gov. Miller after complaining about the situation. The GAE last month received a letter from Moxley saying that the board had changed its policies to prevent such occurrences in the future. The hearing was then canceled.
"We went to Cherokee," Yancey says, "and the news media was there, and PAGE was not there. It was on TV, it was in The Atlanta Constitution, and PAGE was not there."
In fact, PAGE filed a lawsuit March 26 on behalf of five members against Moxley, accusing him of violating their privacy. The suit is continuing, Callahan says, but PAGE didn't publicize it.
"We want Mr. Moxley to act appropriately and within the law and guidelines of the district," he says. "But I don't have to shout and stand in front of TV cameras to accomplish that. We think to react in an incendiary fashion is no good for children, gets emotions ruling the day, and leaves scars in the community that take a long time to heal."
As a matter of principle, PAGE rejects confrontational behavior. The association's legal department has set a goal of returning members' phone calls the same day to offer advice. If warranted, cases are referred to a network of 60 lawyers. But PAGE does not hold teachers' hands in their local communities. As General Counsel Jill Boyd Hay puts it: "We don't go marching in the principal's office with them every time there's a problem."
|As a matter of principle, PAGE rejects confrontational behavior|
The association would prefer to get the word out through its prized Student Teacher Achievement Recognition, or STAR, program, which PAGE co-sponsors with the state education department and the Georgia Chamber of Commerce. The program honors the state's highest-achieving students and their teachers. PAGE's foundation, which recently launched a campaign to raise a $3 million endowment, sponsors two other competitions for students: an academic bowl for the middle grades and the Georgia Academic Decathlon for high school students.
Shawn O. Carpenter, a middle school language arts teacher in Houston County who is the president of PAGE, joined the organization in college because of its focus on students and her distaste with teacher unionism. "Children come first," Carpenter says. "They are our business. As a teacher, when I went into this, I felt that the most important thing about my job was the children. I don't see how it can be any other way."
Christmas, who has "a strong missionary bent" to help smaller independent teacher organizations get off the ground, has offered support and advice to educators in Florida, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee. She's also on the advisory board of the Association of American Educators, but hasn't been very active. Made up of both individuals and statewide nonunion organizations, the association, based in Mission Viejo, Calif., was founded four years ago. Today, it claims 15,000 members. James C. Dobson, the president of Focus on the Family--the influential conservative Christian organization based in Colorado Springs, Colo.--often praises the national association as "a Christian alternative to the NEA and other unions."
Similarly, PAGE representatives have attended the annual meetings of the Coalition of Independent Education Associations, a group of statewide organizations whose directors meet in Washington each spring. But Callahan says frankly that he doesn't go anymore: Most of the talk was just union-bashing, he found, and not very helpful to PAGE. In keeping with its origins as independent from the National Education Association, PAGE doesn't belong to either of the nonunion organizations.
Christmas' primary goal is closer to home: to keep gaining members and to be a voice for strong public education in Georgia.
"We want to lead the reform efforts," she says. "We want to be out front pulling the wagon, not pushing it from behind. And if we didn't do what we say we do, we wouldn't have 44,000 members."
Vol. 17, Issue 40, Pages 40-44Published in Print: June 17, 1998, as State of Independence