After a heated debate, the National Education Association narrowly voted against opening its membership to community allies, or people “interested in advancing the cause of public education.”
The July 4 vote means the constitution of the nation’s largest teachers’ union will not be amended to create a seventh category of membership—even though that proposal was backed by NEA leaders. Just over 60 percent of delegates voted to allow community allies to join the NEA, but constitutional amendments require a two-thirds majority to pass.
The proposal would have allowed community allies to donate to the NEA’s political action committee, something that only members are able to do. The union would have also been able to communicate directly with those allies about political advocacy regarding specific candidates—something it cannot do with nonmembers. Those communities allies would not have been able to vote in the union’s representative assembly or serve in leadership positions.
The constitutional amendment was proposed by the NEA board of directors at a time when teachers’ unions are reeling from a Supreme Court blow—justices ruled last week that unions can no longer charge “agency” or “fair share” fees to nonmembers. The NEA has proposed a two-year budget that includes a $50 million reduction and projects a 14 percent membership loss.
Adding a new membership category would have allowed the union to recoup some of those losses by recruiting non-educators. NEA leaders said they didn’t have an estimate of how many people would have joined through this community-ally category, but they said “thousands” of non-educators had expressed interest in joining the NEA during the confirmation hearing of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.
“We must be able to communicate our issues and candidate recommendations in a way we can only do to our members,” said Becky Pringle, the NEA’s vice president, during yesterday’s debate. “We must be able to allow those who already want to contribute to our political action [committee] to change the balance of power so we can save our colleagues, our children, and our country.”
Those comments kicked off an hour of questions and debate yesterday among the thousands of delegates at the representative assembly. Many delegates expressed concern that this membership category would lead to billionaires gaining influence within the union. Some worried that this would be a slippery slope to non-educators gaining a vote in the union.
“What price do we put on the soul of NEA?” one delegate asked.
Another said: “This is not the time to absorb and cede control to outside influences. Does my union card mean something or not? Bill Gates should not be able to buy one.”
But others said this amendment would give parents, grandparents, and other community members an opportunity to support education. Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association, which oversaw a six-day teachers’ strike this spring, said many community members wanted to support the union during the walkout. Adding a new membership category for those people, he said, would allow the union to harness that support going forward.
On Monday, NEA Executive Director John Stocks addressed the amendment in a fiery speech, saying that educators “can’t be in a movement by ourselves and for ourselves.”
“In this toxic climate, more and more people want to stand for something, they want to be active, they want to associate themselves with a cause and an organization that is not only good but that is powerful and has the infrastructure to make a real difference,” he said. “Delegates, I firmly believe we need to give these activists a home with NEA.”
Image of the opening day of the 2018 NEA Representative Assembly by Rick Runion/NEA. Courtesy of the National Education Association. All rights reserved.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.