School & District Management

Teachers’ Unions on Defensive as GOP Lawmakers Flex Their Muscles

By Sean Cavanagh — January 18, 2011 6 min read
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Teachers’ unions find themselves on the defensive in states across the country, as governors and lawmakers press forward with proposals to target job protections and benefits that elected officials contend the public can no longer afford academically or financially.

Many of those efforts are being driven by newly elected Republicans, who have traditionally drawn political opposition from teachers’ organizations—and did in last year’s midterm elections—but who made historic gains in those state contests.

The GOP now controls more state legislative seats than it has in more than 80 years, and it has the majority in both lawmaking chambers in 25 states. In addition, Republicans emerged from November’s races with control of 29 governor’s offices, erasing Democrats’ previous majority in state executive branches.

Many officeholders are calling for new attempts to change how teachers are paid and evaluated, and for reductions in tenure protections, efforts that were also pursued in several states last year, which have often drawn skeptical responses from unions. State leaders are also vowing to cut spending and close budget shortfalls, and many governors and lawmakers see reductions in state-funded pension systems for teachers as a part of that.

Union leaders say the environment has made it more politically attractive for some lawmakers to castigate labor groups than seek compromises with them.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that what they want to do is silence us, and I think that’s what you see going on around the country,” said David Stout, a spokesman for the Alabama Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association. “There’s an organized movement to hamper the voice of what unions do in public education.”

His 105,000-member organization was unsuccessful in fighting recent state legislation that forbids the state or local governments from allowing public employees’ automatic paycheck withdrawals to support organizations’ political activities or membership dues of organizations that engage in political activity.

A top aide to Alabama Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, a Republican, disputed the AEA’s assertion that the measure was meant to target that organization, saying it was designed to ensure that state resources are not used for political activity. But he added that Republicans, since gaining control of both of the state’s legislative chambers, are in position to challenge the AEA in ways they had not before.

“The playing field has leveled a bit,” said Philip Bryan, the chief of staff to the senator. “We’re going to put forward responsible legislation that is in the best interest of taxpayers, and not necessarily in the best interest of special interest groups.”

Political Sphere

The Alabama measure signed into law by then-Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican, was approved during a special legislative session led by GOP lawmakers, who won control of both legislative chambers in the state for the first time since the Reconstruction era following the Civil War.

Mr. Stout said the AEA, which officially considers itself a professional association, not a union, will take alternative steps to raise money, such as by asking members to allow automatic withdrawals from their bank accounts.

Legislative Activity

Lawmakers in several states have pushed or are working on changes to a number of policies that affect teachers and the unions representing them.

BENEFITS: Several newly elected governors and lawmakers campaigned on promises to reduce pension and health-care costs for public workers, including teachers. In Florida, Republican Gov. Rick Scott and legislators have called for finding savings in the state’s retirement system.

SALARY DEDUCTIONS FOR POLITICAL ACTIVITY: Last month, Alabama lawmakers approved legislation that forbids the state or local governments from allowing public employees’ automatic paycheck deductions to support organizations’ political activities or membership dues of groups that engage in political activity.

TENURE, PAY, EVALUATION: Several legislatures are considering or likely to consider measures to tie teacher pay and evaluation to student performance, including test scores, and to rework tenure provisions. New Jersey lawmakers are examining changes to tenure; Republican Gov. Chris Christie has also called for changes.

STRIKES: In Illinois, a pair of special education committees discussed a proposal that would make it harder for teachers to strike, as well as make it easier to remove ineffective teachers. Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan, a Democrat, has said that legislative work will continue.

SOURCE: Education Week

Teachers’ unions have long been major players in elections at the state level, where much of K-12 policy is shaped and where legislatures wield significant control over state pension and benefits systems.

The 3.2 million-member NEA was the largest single provider of political cash at the state and federal levels during the 2007-08 election cycle, according to data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute on Money in State Politics. During that period, the NEA made a combined $56.5 million in federal and state contributions, with the overwhelming majority flowing to state-level candidates, political parties, and ballot measures.

And during the 2010 election cycle, the vast majority of the money the NEA and the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers spent on individual state candidates went to Democrats, according to data from the institute. (“Teachers’ Unions Come on Strong in State-Level Races,” Oct. 6, 2010.)

Yet in recent years, other political and advocacy organizations focused on education have taken, or plan to play, a role in state capitals where unions have traditionally wielded power. One such organization is StudentsFirst, an organization launched last year by former District of Columbia schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, a frequent critic of teachers’ unions. Ms. Rhee has said her group will support local, state, and federal candidates who take bold steps to improve teacher quality.

Another, more-established organization is Stand for Children, which has backed efforts to tie teacher promotion and evaluation to performance in a number of states. Officials from the organization, which is headquartered in Portland, Ore., and Waltham, Mass., estimate that it contributed $1.1 million to state-level candidates—both Democrats and Republicans—in four states during the 2010 election cycle: Colorado, Illinois, Oregon, and Washington state. The group also says that it contacted 55,000 strategically targeted voters in all those states except Illinois, where its grassroots efforts are still taking hold.

Strikes, Benefits Targeted

Stand for Children supports a proposal in Illinois that would make it easier to remove ineffective teachers, make hiring and firing decisions based on merit, rather than seniority, and make it more difficult for educators to strike. While such strikes have been rare in the state, the threat gives unions significant power to stifle policies, such as lengthening the school day, which would benefit students, argues Jonah Edelman, the founder and chief executive officer of Stand for Children.

Mr. Edelman, the son of children’s advocate Marian Wright Edelman, discounted the idea that his organization stands in general opposition to unions. Teachers’ unions are far from “monolithic” in their positions, he said, and Stand for Children has sided with those organizations on individual issues and pieces of legislation. He sees the potential for more cooperation going forward.

“We see a sea change politically,” Mr. Edelman said. “The conventional wisdom used to be that supporting fundamental improvements in schools was politically very dangerous.” While the environment in every state is different, he said, “now, it’s my sense that supporting these policies is good politics.”

Unions have also voiced concerns about state efforts to cut teachers’ state pensions and other benefits, which some governors and lawmakers believe are too generous and consume too much of state budgets. Governors such as New Jersey Republican Chris Christie contend that their states’ pension and health-care systems for teachers and other workers need changes to remain solvent.

“Without reform, the beneficiaries of the system face a high risk of catastrophe, which would place all of their benefits at risk,” Gov. Christie said in his Jan. 11 State of the State speech. “Benefits are too rich, and contributions are too small, and the system is on a path to bankruptcy.”

AFT President Randi Weingarten said the union’s affiliates have a history of productive negotiations with state officials on reducing pensions and benefit costs, and on teacher-quality issues, too. But she said some of the rhetoric coming from statehouses seems aimed at “scapegoating and demonizing” teachers.

Too many elected officials and advocacy groups act as though “they want a war” with unions, Ms. Weingarten said. “The moment someone says, ‘I’m going to get you out of the picture,’ it’s not about helping kids.”

Some state officials are playing on states’ financial woes and the public’s economic fears in trying to cut pensions and benefits, Ms. Weingarten said. That message tends to resonate among workers who have seen their private-sector retirement funds—more closely tied to market results than many state plans for teachers—take a hit during the recession.

“My members have been looking for common ground on how you can solve problems. We’ve been in the leadership on that,” she said. “When we see unions and management working together, that’s what the public wants.”

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A version of this article appeared in the January 19, 2011 edition of Education Week as Unions Feeling Chill on State Capital Front

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