While National Education Association President Bob Chase was unveiling his vision for a new union at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. (see "NEA Head Sets New Course," this issue), several little-known alternative teachers' groups had their own high profile platform on Capitol Hill.
Representatives from the independent teacher groups spoke at a conference titled "Education Reforms--Despite the NEA and the AFT," sponsored by the Arlington, Virginia-based Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, a conservative think tank. Held in a hearing room in the House of Representatives, the conference provided a forum for teacher leaders who criticize the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers for, among other things, their opposition to vouchers and resistance to charter schools.
It also threw a national spotlight on the low profile but apparently growing population of teachers who decline to belong to either of the two major unions, choosing instead to join local teacher associations. According to the de Tocqueville Institution, there are some 300,000 such teachers in 20 states. Gary Beckner, president of the Mission Viejo, California-based Association of American Educators, told participants that independent associations like his 6,200-member group are "one of the best-kept secrets in America."
"We're not anti-union," Beckner asserted. "We just think unions should stick to what they do best, which is negotiating better wages for those who want to join them."
The mission of the AAE, according to its literature, is to "encourage and empower teachers who embrace similar views on education." Annual membership fees are $99, compared with the $200 to $300 the mainstream unions collect in annual dues. That $99 covers liability insurance for teachers, but no part of it is used for political activity, Beckner said.
Tim Callahan, a spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, told the conference that his group provides an alternative to the major unions in that it does not attempt to stake out social-policy positions. "I sleep well at night knowing I'm never going to have to answer, 'What's the PAGE position on abortion?' 'What's the PAGE position on gun control?'" he said.
Leaders of PAGE, which claims some 41,000 members, say their group has surpassed the membership of Georgia's NEA affiliate, which has roughly 32,500 members. The NEA's controversial stands on issues such as Lesbian and Gay History Month have boosted support for groups like PAGE, said Callahan, who called the national union "our best recruiters."
The speakers acknowledged that the independent associations face a dilemma of sorts as they seek to grow: If they become too large, they run the risk of turning into the kind of massive institutions they are trying to help teachers avoid.
To resist that temptation, Beckner said, some groups have written bylaws that bar them from affiliating with any national group. His task, he said, is to persuade such groups that "it would be good to have a national hub."