Teaching Profession

Unions Labor to Shape Education Policy

By Karen Diegmueller — October 30, 2002 15 min read
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Many groups leave their mark on education policy. Think tanks. Business associations. Organizations representing administrators, curriculum developers, and parents. Still, it’s hard, if not impossible, to think of any group that tries harder to shape education policy than the teachers’ unions.

And why not? Their members have a huge stake in how schools are run, as well as a ground-level view of what really matters in the classroom. What’s more, with a combined membership closing in on 4 million, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have the resources to do so.

The Union
Imprint: Part I

  • Unions Labor to Shape Education Policy

That influence is never more evident than during election season. Voters go to the polls next week to elect 36 governors, the entire U.S. House of Representatives, one-third of the U.S. Senate, and scores of state and local officials who will have a say in what takes place in America’s schools. They will also pass judgment on state and local initiatives and bond issues. Not only are the teachers’ unions major financial contributors to many of those candidates and ballot measures; their ground troops are able to marshal much-envied grassroots support for a campaign. Their muscle alone can help tip the scales in a tight race.

Influence-wielding, however, is a year-round endeavor for the teachers’ unions. And no more so than these days, when the unions perceive that they and public education are under attack by those who want to privatize education, thus undermining the unions’ base of power and what the teachers see as the common good.

Wherever education policy is made, the teachers’ unions can be found, for better or worse. Critics—and they have many—view the unions as meddlesome, even downright harmful, to the education system. Others, though, look on them as the leaders of many efforts to improve the public schools.

“They are,” said Terry M. Moe, a political science professor at Stanford University, “the most powerful player in the politics of education—period.”

Still, whether their power is on the rise or on the wane remains an open question. Though membership in the teachers’ unions is growing, experts point out that many of the newcomers don’t belong to the teaching ranks. What’s more, the establishment of publicly financed vouchers, charter schools, and other nontraditional schooling opportunities shows the limits of their power.

“Today, they are still the 800-pound gorillas, but they’re under siege in a way they weren’t in the ‘80s,” continued Mr. Moe, a leading proponent of school choice. “I think they’re in the process of losing their grip and are going in decline, but this is going to be a long, slow process.”

Levels of Influence

The NEA, the smaller AFT, and their state and local affiliates find many ways besides elections to achieve their goals. Some methods are highly visible, such as strikes and other job actions. Less obvious is union members’ presence on the boards of local, state, and national organizations. Behind the scenes, meanwhile, the unions devote substantial resources to lobbying lawmakers.

Collective bargaining has provided the means by which teachers’ unions have been able to control some of the most basic of school operations.

Buffalo, N.Y., is a case in point. Because of severe financial problems, the Buffalo district laid teachers off last year. Administrators, however, couldn’t cut some art, music, and physical education teachers because of a provision in the teachers’ contract, according to J. Andrew Maddigan, a district spokesman. Teachers of core subjects had to be let go instead. “Some may question,” he said, “whether that’s a fair trade-off.”

At the state level, unions press for increased funding for K-12 education. A recent report by the Harrisburg, Pa.-based Commonwealth Foundation largely attributes Pennsylvania’s increase in tax revenue to support public education to the Pennsylvania State Education Association’s lobbying efforts.

In the 13 years before the passage of a state law that boosted the unions’ dues-collecting powers, total public school tax revenue from state and local sources grew slightly more than 4 percent faster than the rate of inflation, according to the report. In the following 13 years, from 1988 to 2000, revenue outpaced inflation by more than 123 percent. The foundation found similar differences in property-tax increases.

“I think there is a direct relationship between the increasing power of the PSEA and the amount of taxes going to the public school, and ultimately into the pockets of the labor union and its members,” said Matthew J. Brouillette, the president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a conservative think tank.

Union officials say otherwise, though they don’t deny that they try to get money funneled into public schools. “I think the people who make those charges should look at reality,” said Reg Weaver, the president of the NEA. “What we’re doing is trying to make sure that all children have access to a quality school that is free from intimidation and harassment and is conducive to good teaching. You can’t do that on the cheap.”

At the national level, the unions also wield influence. For instance, the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which recognizes teacher excellence following a rigorous assessment process, is governed by a 63-member board. A majority of the board members must be classroom teachers, according to the organization’s bylaws, and some of those teachers must have held a union office. During the current school year, 18 of the board members are or have been officials of the NEA, the AFT, or one of their affiliates.

In recent years, the unions have begun stepping outside their traditional role of securing better salaries, benefits, and working conditions and into advancing teaching and learning initiatives. Affiliates of the NEA and the AFT, in fact, have formed an organization for that very reason, the Teacher Union Reform Network, or TURN. Both the group and its members try to work with local district officials to find ways to improve schools and the lot of teachers as well.

“You can find places in the country, lots of school districts, where through collective bargaining, unions are either participating in or leading the way in education reform,” said Julia Koppich, a San Francisco-based education consultant and union watcher.

Just this fall, the United Federation of Teachers presented New York City teachers with an English/language arts curriculum aligned with city and state academic standards. Though the $2 million effort drew the praise of Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein, some thought the AFT affiliate had reached outside its purview with the project.

“On the one hand, you still have a number of people who rail against unions for being entrenched in wages, hours, and working conditions,” said Ms. Koppich, “and on the other hand, when they stray beyond those boundaries into professional development, compensation systems, and peer review, [critics complain] they’ve overstepped their bounds.”

The San Francisco-based Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy earlier this year analyzed the collective bargaining contracts of 460 of California’s 994 school districts. It concluded that teachers’ unions wielded too much power over curriculum, teacher evaluation and accountability, and self-governance in nearly 75 percent of the contracts reviewed.

Union officials acknowledge that they encourage their members at the local, state, and national levels to involve themselves in policymaking. But they also say the unions don’t call the shots.

“The AFT and the NEA and other unions don’t have the kind of power that some people may be alluding to,” said Janet Bass, a spokeswoman for the AFT. “We can [use the] bully pulpit. We can try to get things into our contracts. In the end, superintendents and other officials make the final decisions about what goes on in schools.”

Door to the Statehouse

The Pacific Research Institute report came out shortly after a bill was introduced in the California legislature seeking to give teachers a bigger say on such academic issues as standards and curriculum, textbooks, and assessments.

Although the California Teachers Association was unsuccessful in broadening collective bargaining rights, legislation expanding the scope of contract negotiations did pass at the behest of the teachers’ union in Maryland this year. Unions there will now be allowed to barter over some academic and teacher-accountability issues.

The unions have focused particular attention at the state level over the past decade or so, as states have paid a bigger share of the K-12 bill and, in return, have insisted on having more control over what takes place in schools.

As a result, it’s become commonplace for teachers’ groups to help massage legislation, as the North Carolina Association of Educators did this year after individual teachers and other North Carolinians complained that a teacher-portfolio assessment was too burdensome. In response, lawmakers nearly scrapped that piece of the state’s teacher-induction system.

“We were able to convince them to study the [induction] process and come up with a better way” of evaluating teachers, said Angela Farthing, the manager of the NCAE’s Center for Teaching and Learning.

Like other special-interest groups, the unions often achieve success by blocking legislation.

State Rep. Harry Moberly introduced a bill two years ago that, among other provisions, would have required Kentucky middle school teachers to acquire adequate subject-matter knowledge. The teachers’ union was able to prevent it from becoming law.

What makes the unions so effective, Mr. Moberly suggested, is their networking capabilities. On issues they deem important, their members communicate with individual legislators’ constituents. During the teacher- quality debate in 2000, the Kentucky Democrat recalled, “we were swamped with e-mails.”

Another tactic that tends to work is sending classroom teachers to the state capital to meet with their representatives for a day or two. Because lawmakers view the teachers as knowledgeable insiders, “those individuals are in many ways far more effective than full-time lobbyists,” said David Schultz, a professor of political science at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn.

Money Talks

The unions can take on adversaries and promote their agendas, in part, because of the large sums they raise through their political action committees.

The NEA budgeted $1.7 million for lobbying in 2002-03, according to a report by Mike Antonucci, the director of the Education Intelligence Agency, a Carmichael, Calif.-based newsletter. For the current election cycle, the NEA had shelled out $1.1 million in direct contributions as of the end of June, while the AFT had donated $930,640. That’s at the national level alone.

So-called “soft money"—donations to a political cause or party—by the middle of this year amounted to $635,500 for the NEA and $1.3 million from the AFT.

On top of that, each state affiliate, and many local affiliates, use their PACs to promote issues or candidates. By the end of June, for instance, the Nebraska State Education Association had spent $80,330 in the 2002 election cycle; a state board of education candidate got the largest share of that, at $8,225, according to the Antonucci report.

Both national unions also established new war chests primarily for campaigns in individual states. In 2000, the NEA approved a $5 annual dues increase, $3 of which was earmarked for state ballot-initiative campaigns and legislative lobbying. The AFT did likewise this past summer, hiking dues by 67 cents a month for such initiatives.

Much of the money has gone to successful campaigns against vouchers and to replenishing the unions’ coffers depleted in such battles. The NEA, for instance, gave the California Teachers Association $5 million to defeat Proposition 38, a statewide voucher measure, in 2000, according to Mr. Antonucci’s report, “Thy Voice in My Behalf.” The CTA spent $21 million on the campaign.

Vouchers are “one area where we definitely had the ground troops actively involved,” said Mr. Weaver, the NEA president, who ticked off victories in California and Michigan, as well as keeping such a provision out of the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001.

Hand in hand with the money goes the sheer number of union members and what that can mean for an election’s outcome.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council figured that in 2000, one of every 42 voters in the state was a member. “If WEAC members came out to vote in force, they could control the outcome of the elections with a solid 4-5 percent of the total vote,” according to a self-penned history of the union. “And, when factoring in immediate family, that total could rise easily to 10 percent, enough to reshape the state’s political landscape.”

In Maryland, teachers are investing heavily in the gubernatorial campaign of Democratic Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, whom they view as a strong friend of public education. In contrast, her GOP opponent, U.S. Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., supports publicly financed tuition vouchers, an anathema to the unions.

The Maryland State Teachers Association gave Ms. Townsend’s campaign $6,000, the maximum allowed under state law, and donated $6,000 to the Democratic slate.

“We think the most important thing to do is to educate and deliver our own members’ votes. That’s our focus,” said Diana K. Saquella, the MSTA’s manager of government relations.

To that end, the MSTA is sending three mailings to its 56,000 members, coupled with two rounds of telephone calls. The state organization has also sent union locals newsletters and talking points comparing the records of the gubernatorial candidates.

Other Maryland voters will receive postcards asking them to consider voting for Ms. Townsend. On Election Day, union volunteers will work at polls in six counties.

The MSTA will also give “teacher recommended” bumper stickers to candidates to stick on their signs, and pay for a radio spot to run in the Washington market that Ms. Saquella describes as “completely independent” from the Townsend campaign.

In return, the union hopes to get favorable treatment for teachers’ pensions from Ms. Townsend and the other candidates it backed, should they win.

“We’re not looking for any quid pro quo,” Ms. Saquella said, just “the opportunity to work with them.”

Cincinnati teachers, meanwhile, are working in support of a $480 million bond issue to renovate and build new schools in their 42,000-student district for the first time in decades.

In addition to the $5,000 the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers donated to the bond campaign, union members are assembling yard signs and setting up voter-registration stations at grocery stores. They’ll staff phone banks, too, if asked, said union President Sue Taylor, who is a member of the campaign’s leadership team.

Long Memory

Among the unions’ most potent weapons, though, are the paid staff members who often negotiate contracts for union locals or help out with issues both routine and thorny.

“They have more experienced political operatives than Republicans and Democrats combined,” said Myron Lieberman, the chairman of the Education Policy Institute, a Washington-based research group that focuses on the unions, and longtime union critic.

What also gives the unions more leverage is the longevity of their leaders—unlike top administrators, school board members, and state legislators, who are replaced with some frequency. And the union leaders have the institutional memory and the political contacts that others in education often don’t.

“These people stay; everybody else turns over,” said Bruce S. Cooper, a professor of educational administration at Fordham University.

Bending With the Times

The new federal campaign-finance law, which kicks in after next week’s elections, will change some of the unions’ practices—at least at the federal level—by restricting some contributions.

Still, they are likely to find a way around those limitations as they have other obstacles. In part, they’ve been able to do so because of their adeptness at changing strategies. When state lawmakers began setting more and more education policy, the unions shifted much of their weight to statehouses. When ballot initiatives became an increasingly popular tool of citizens’ groups and special interests, the unions entered the fray.

The evolution continues.

“The unions are much more successful now than, say, five years ago,” David N. Plank, the director of the Education Policy Center at Michigan State University, said of teachers’ unions in his state. “The reason is that their political position in the ‘90s was ‘no.’ Whatever was proposed, their answer was no.” Now, he says, they often weigh in on how to write new policies.

Meanwhile, the unions are trying to temper their partisan images. While their sympathies overwhelmingly reside with the Democrats, they have made more of a point of seeking out Republicans to support. Still, during the current election cycle, 99 percent of the AFT’s contributions and 94 percent of the NEA’s at the federal level have been to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, an independent research group in Washington.

“What the teachers’ unions have learned, especially the NEA, is they have to work hard at being more bipartisan,” said Jack Jennings, the director of the Center on Education Policy, a research group in Washington and a former longtime aide to Democrats on the U.S. House education committee.

It surely smarted, for instance, when the AFT got invited to the White House for a teacher-preparation conference, while the gates were closed to the NEA, largely because it did not endorse No Child Left Behind.

Michigan is one of the places where the unions have started backing some Republicans. In turn, some GOP attitudes may have changed.

Not all that long ago, the sentiment toward the teachers’ unions was “just short of hatred on my side of the aisle,” said state Rep. Patricia A. “Pan” Godchaux, a Republican and a beneficiary of the Michigan Education Association’s largess.

More and more Republicans, she said, have figured out they shouldn’t make enemies of the teachers, who have the largest and most organized groups in their districts. “So when they get invited to sit down with the teachers,” Ms. Godchaux said, “they go sit down with the teachers.”

Regardless of the unions’ strategies, some observers ask whether it’s so bad for them to be so involved in education policy, considering that their members are closer to what goes on in the public schools than any other players.

“You might make the argument,” said Hamline University’s Mr. Schultz, “who do we want shaping what’s going on in the classroom: teachers or legislators?”

Assistant Editors Jeff Archer and Bess Keller contributed to this story.

Coverage of leadership issues in education—including goverance, management, and labor relations—is supported by Broad Foundation.

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