Skip to comments.Teachers Discard The Union Label
Posted on 09/22/2003 11:10:57 AM PDT by Cincinatus' Wife
The powerful national teachers unions took one on the chin in September when, despite their intense lobbying, both the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate Appropriations Committee narrowly approved the first government-funded voucher plan for the children of the District of Columbia. This was made possible by a diverse network of school-choice advocates including, most importantly, parents groups.
But education watchers say the most important new constituency of groups critical of the teacher unions is, surprisingly, teachers themselves. All over the country, some of the most distinguished public-school teachers are taking on the unions that claim to represent them on issues ranging from alleged misuse of member dues for political activity to union insistence on "politically correct" curricula. Paralleling the movement for parental choice is a growing call for teacher choice - that is, the right of teachers to be free of what many call union harassment.
"Teachers have a right to choose and they have a right to make a free choice, not a compelled choice, not a coerced choice, not a choice made with intimidation," says Tracey Bailey, national-projects director for the Association of American Educators (AAE), a professional teacher group that serves as an alternative to a union. "Teachers are professionals and they deserve to be treated as professionals. That means not being coerced and not having their money" taken to campaign for policies that go against their convictions.
Bailey is a former public high-school teacher who was named Florida Teacher of the Year in 1992 and National Teacher of the Year in 1993. As a young science teacher, he put his students on the cutting edge by showing the applications of chemistry and physics in new techniques such as DNA fingerprinting. He loved using real-world lesson plans to motivate his students, but he resented being hassled to join the teacher union.
"I got the coercive mail in my mailbox," Bailey recalled. "After the first brochure, I got a more strongly worded reminder: 'Everyone else is a member. You're keeping us from getting 100 percent. Shame on you. You should carry your own weight.'"
He says, "I might have even joined then just to go along and get along. But then about a week after that came the third one. That one, among other choice words, said, 'Don't be a freeloader. Join now.' They made it clear that I was a jerk for not joining, wasn't carrying my weight, wasn't a good teacher and was hurting other teachers. For about 30 seconds, my feelings as a 24-year-old kid were hurt. After that, I got mad. I wasn't a freeloader; I more than carried my weight. I was up late planning lessons and I was a good teacher. I knew right away that any group that had that kind of attitude wasn't something I needed to get into. I just stayed out."
Bailey gave in to the pressure briefly after he was nominated for the Florida Teacher of the Year award but then quit the state teachers union to join the advisory board of AAE. "They [the union] had agendas that didn't really deal with the classroom, didn't really deal with the day-in, day-out of helping me be a better math or science teacher," he recalls.
And, like Bailey, many young teachers now share a similar skepticism of labor unions, says Krista Kafer, senior policy analyst for education at the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington. "The younger teachers are more entrepreneurial, and they see the unions as impediments to their individually negotiating with a school," Kafer tells Insight. "Individual teachers may support things like school choice, merit pay, the changing of the single-salary scale. Unions always oppose those."
Unions also are suffering from a series of scandals involving misuse of teachers' dues. The FBI recently seized dozens of luxury items from officials of the Washington Teachers Union, including fur coats, designers clothes and a $57,000 Tiffany tea set. The officials are accused of embezzling more than $2 million of teachers' money. And in Miami, longtime United Teachers of Dade [County] President Pasquale "Pat" Tornillo pleaded guilty in August to tax evasion and mail fraud in connection with charges that he siphoned off member dues to pay for homes and hotel bills.
At the national level, the largest teacher union, the National Education Association (NEA), has been the subject of an intensive five-year probe by the conservative watchdog Landmark Legal Foundation, which accuses it of using member dues illegally to coordinate political campaigns with the Democratic Party. The Federal Election Commission dropped the case; the NEA maintains it only funds political activity through voluntary donations to its political-action committee. But Landmark points to Democratic Party documents that refer to the NEA as part of a party-coordinated campaign in 1996 to "turn out Democratic voters on behalf of the entire Democratic ticket" and has filed a complaint with the IRS charging that the NEA illegally is using tax-exempt funds for political activity.
Regardless of the legality of its political activism, the NEA's left-of-center agenda is causing many teachers to turn away. From its resolutions supporting everything from unrestricted legal abortion to gun control to withholding aid in the 1980s from the anticommunist Contras, the NEA has shown that it is interested in more than its stated goals of higher teacher pay and job security. "You don't need your education organization supporting United Nations this or that, gay or lesbian this or that, abortion pro or con," Bailey says. "That's not something many of our teachers want their education association doing. I think if the union were to survey its members on those issues, their own teachers would tell them, 'Don't make political decisions for me that I can make for myself.'"
Yet teachers who speak out against any part of the NEA's agenda often find themselves the targets of retaliation. For instance, Cindy Omlin was a speech pathologist at an elementary school in Spokane, Wash., who didn't like what she was reading in the journal of the Washington Education Association (WEA), the state affiliate of the NEA. "I saw what I considered to be an agenda or an ideology that was very much at odds with what I considered to be respectful of human life and human dignity, freedom and what was in the best interest of kids," Omlin recalls to Insight. "Their view of the family concerned me. The way they actively promoted homosexuality as equal to marriage. The way they pushed sexuality education - they tended to push a very broad, contraceptive-based, sexually open lifestyle for kids, and I thought that was harmful. ... I started speaking out against the harmful aspects of the union's agenda."
Omlin and Barbara Amidon, a middle-school counselor in Olympia, Wash., started a newsletter in 1995, the WEA Challenger Network News, which took the union to task for spending member dues on political or social issues. The union immediately subjected them to a grueling 17-month lawsuit on grounds of alleged trademark infringement for using the WEA's name, as well as alleged "tortious interference" with "business expectancy" and "unfair competition." Represented by the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, Omlin and Amidon agreed to drop the use of the WEA's name after the union dropped its other demands, Omlin recalls. "When they did originally agree to settle, they said, 'Okay, we'll settle if you take WEA out of your name, but you can't share any of this information about the lawsuit and the settlement with anybody, and you can't criticize the union from here on out,'" Omlin says. "And we said, 'We're sorry, but that basically guts our freedom of speech and our citizenship rights,' and we held out a while longer."
This assuredly is not the only instance in which teachers unions have used strong-arm tactics against dissenting teachers, Bailey says. When he held a town meeting in Florida in the mid-1990s about the alternative AAE, union officials filled the street entrances to the building. "Half an hour before the meeting started, these union leaders lined up out on the sidewalk and just kind of made a gauntlet that teachers would have to walk through," Bailey recalls. "I don't want to make it sound like they were linked in arms and forming a human chain, but people would literally have to face them and walk around them if they wanted to get in."
But intimidation tactics don't seem to be thwarting the growing number of teachers challenging the unions. In Washington state, harassment of the Omlin and Amidon newsletter led to a legal complaint filed by the conservative Evergreen Freedom Foundation on behalf of dozens of teachers who charged that the union was violating the state's paycheck-protection laws by spending dues on political activity without the teachers' consent. Last year a court ordered the WEA to refund the fees of some of the teachers [see news alert, Feb. 25, 2002]. But the law was overturned this summer by a bizarre ruling of a state appeals court that claims the union's collective right of free speech outweighs the right of individual members not to fund speech with which they disagree. That ruling is being appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Meanwhile, no longer teaching, Omlin has formed Northwest Professional Educators (NPE) and affiliated it with the national AAE. She has a tough challenge ahead because Washington state, unlike Florida, is one of 20 states where teachers are forced to pay union dues. And the WEA has launched an attack on her group that is similar to the NEA's attack on the AAE. The WEA charges on its Website and elsewhere that Omlin's NPE is guided by shadowy, "right-wing political" figures led by "foes of public education and opponents of the collective rights of union members." So intellectually parochial is the WEA, say critics, that it attempts to besmirch the reputation of the parent organization by linking it to a Nobel Prize-winning conservative economist: "The Association of American Educators propounds the views of Milton Friedman, the architect of the controversial school-privatization movement."
Omlin and Bailey say the AAE and its state affiliates are made up of public-school teachers, take positions only on issues having to do with education and even then only when there is consensus among a supermajority of members as polled in surveys. The group has taken no position on school vouchers.
What it does take stands on are issues of education quality. It lists these principles on its Website (www.aaeteachers.org). They include: "Public education will be improved if we always remember that our first duty is to the child"; "Public education will be improved if we aim to develop a young person's character as well as his or her intellect"; "Public education will be improved if public schools, their administration, instructional services and curriculum are primarily accountable to the parents, citizens and taxpayers of the local communities they serve." Hardly right-wing politics.
Bailey says that the AAE and its coalition now has more than 250,000 members, about 10 percent of the membership of the NEA. Although the AAE does not act as a union engaged in collective bargaining, it does offer many of the benefits of unions such as liability-insurance policies and scholarships for teachers. Besides Bailey, several other state and national teachers of the year have joined and are active.
And even outside of the group distinguished public-school educators who have broken with unions are offering some of the most compelling scholarship on education reform. John Taylor Gatto, the 1991 New York Teacher of the Year, announced his resignation from teaching in the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal six months after receiving the award, saying that both unions and school administrators were pushing a dumbed-down curriculum and stifling his creativity. Since then, he has written three books on schooling, including The Underground History of American Education, and is producing a documentary on education solutions entitled The Fourth Purpose.
Similarly, G. Gregory Moo, a former teacher and principal who taught disadvantaged children in Alaska and Oregon, became so disenchanted with unions protecting incompetent teachers that he wrote the 1999 book Power Grab: How the National Education Association Is Betraying Our Children. Moo tells Insight he believes teacher choice will go hand in hand with school choice.
"When parents have the money to make a voucher system work, then the locus of control will be parents," Moo says. "They're going to want the best teachers they can get within the best school setting. The focus will change from districts to schools. ... Good teachers will be in demand. They will negotiate individual contracts or unit contracts, but it will be a whole different dynamic than what exists now. Good teachers will definitely benefit, and I think people that are not now in the profession who want to be teachers will start to come in because there will be more freedom at the school level."
John Berlau is a writer for Insight magazine.
Fewer than one-half of the nation's 1,200 teachers colleges meet professional standards of accreditation.
In recent years, more than 50,000 teachers who lack training for their jobs have entered teaching annually on emergency or substandard certification.
More than 40 states allow school districts to hire teachers who have not met basic education requirements, and more than 12 percent of new teachers nationwide begin with no training at all.
When Pennsylvania evaluated its teacher testing, it discovered that teachers could qualify for positions in hard-to-fill subject areas just by signing their names.
In Hawaii, one-half of new hires failed either to complete or pass certification exams.
In Long Island, N.Y., a superintendent who decided to give teaching applicants an English test normally given to 11th-graders discovered that only one in four could pass.
Among the 21 states using the Praxis I math test to screen teachers, most set cutoff scores so low that applicants could miss 40 percent of questions and still pass.
Parents Demand Schools That Work***The public-education establishment fears success of the voucher program would lead to demands for a nationwide program. Eleanor Holmes Norton, the nonvoting congressional delegate from the District of Columbia who led the fight against the pilot program in the House of Representatives on Sept. 9, played to this fear, charging "If you vote for the Davis amendment [for Washington], you are voting for vouchers for our country." And she waved the big stick of local retaliation from the powerful National Education Association in each member's district: "If you are willing to vote to give public money to private schools [in Washington] this year, you better be prepared to answer back home." The threat was almost successful, with the House voting 110 to 109 to institute the voucher program. As Insight went to press, the Senate was expected to vote in the near future with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) threatening to stand in the private schoolhouse door.***
Shame on the NEA for the perverse, immoral, dictatorial, threatening manner in which it pushes its membership to pay out dues, join (whatever) in order to grab the money for its pathetic and low class agenda.
NEA challenged on political outlays - Teacher's union fields "army of campaign workers"*** As much as one-third of the tax-exempt National Education Association's yearly $271 million income goes toward politically related activities, according to union documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service.
The documents show that the 2.7 million-member teacher's union spends millions annually to field what one critic calls an "army of campaign workers," while maintaining that it spends nothing on politics.
The NEA has avoided millions of dollars in federal and D.C. income taxes every year for political activities that are not tax-exempt, says the Landmark Legal Foundation, a Herndon-based public-interest group that has asked the IRS to investigate and recoup the money.***
Vouchers will help public schools - Fear loss of MONEY - But what of "for the children?"*** The study found that public schools whose students were eligible for vouchers made significantly larger test-score gains than other public schools in the state. Even public schools that had only one failing grade but faced the threat of vouchers if they failed again made exceptional improvements. Similar low-scoring schools that did not face the prospect of voucher competition, however, did not make similar gains. In Florida, vouchers have provided public schools with powerful incentives to improve. If schools don't improve, they stand to lose students - and the funding they generate - to other schools.***
"persistently dangerous" - School-safety rankings - or just black marks?*** At the heart of the discrepancy may well be a reluctance on the part of educators to report campus crime fully. A survey by the National Association of School Resource Officers found that 89 percent of school police believe crime is already underreported. "It's the scarlet letter in education today," says Mr. Trump. "Administrators have said to me privately that they would rather be academically failing than be a dangerous school."***
The NEA's Q & A*** If urban-area teachers answer students' questions as carelessly and erroneously as the president of the National Education Association (NEA) answered the questions of his C-SPAN host and the network's callers, it becomes clear why big-city public-school students perform so poorly.
Welcomed by C-SPAN on Aug. 31, in recognition of the beginning of the new school year, Reg Weaver earned an "F" for turning in such a self-serving and politicized performance. He acknowledged that the NEA was in fact a "special-interest group." But Mr. Weaver then insisted, against all evidence to the contrary, that the NEA's "special interest happens to be children and public education."
Indeed, when the C-SPAN host began the interview by asking Mr. Weaver about the current "state of American public schools," the labor leader launched into a lengthy monologue that confined itself to the concerns of teachers and their profession. He said the teaching corps is "more prepared today that what they have been in years," and said that "over 50 percent have master's degrees." He neglected, however, to tell viewers that, while the teachers may have advanced education degrees, there remain shortages of math and science teachers.***
Thanks for the reply above-you are a fountain of info, always targeted and dead-on.
Thanks for the kudos.
Free taxpayer dollars and let competition drive excellence in education.
"We expect that we will continue to sponsor H-1B employees in the future for the simple reason that we cannot find enough U.S. workers with the advanced education, skills, and expertise we need," he said.***
I would have guessed that teachers tended to be about 85% liberal democrats. Your personal observations to the contrary are indeed encouraging.
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