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February 2, 2004

1)  South Carolina “Redesign” Highlights NEA Weakness in South. NEA’s status as the largest single union in the United States partially disguises its dependency on strong collective bargaining and agency fee laws for membership growth. In states like California and New Jersey, NEA’s dominance is untouchable, but in Southern states, NEA affiliates have been traditionally weak, and are getting weaker.

In three states – Missouri, Texas and Georgia – NEA members are outnumbered by teachers who belong to independent, non-union education associations. In a fourth state, Mississippi, it is almost certain that the state’s independent teacher group has finally overtaken the NEA state affiliate in membership. The AFT outnumbers NEA in Louisiana, thanks to a large local in New Orleans, and most of NEA’s membership losses last year occurred in the South.

The latest Southern red alert seems to be emanating from South Carolina. The South Carolina Education Association (SCEA) has lost members in each of the last eight years, declining from 17,000 members in 1994 to 13,000 members in 2002 – of whom only 10,400 were working K-12 teachers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that slide has continued, perhaps accelerated. The independent education group in the state, the Palmetto State Teachers Association, has been slowly but steadily narrowing the membership gap.

In 2001, when the Texas State Teachers Association began to feel the effects of membership losses and a budget crunch, the union “restructured” itself by closing offices, reassigning staff, and redefining missions. SCEA seems to be mounting a similar effort. On March 6, the union’s delegate assembly will vote on an organizational “redesign.” The elements of that plan reveal a lot about the problems NEA faces in South Carolina and other Southern states.

The plan’s preamble asks the questions: “Will the SCEA stem the loss of market share in competition with other rival organizations that are not concerned with meeting the broad range of member needs?” and “Will the SCEA survive and prosper in the 21st Century, or will it become obsolete?”

NEA headquarters in Washington, DC has sent organizers to South Carolina in an effort to forestall any obsolescence, but SCEA is still worried. “Our current membership base is largely in the 40+ age status,” reads its evaluation. “New employees to the profession too often seek less expensive alternatives to the SCEA.”

The SCEA plan lists actions to take (mostly structural) and the reasons to take them, which are most enlightening. The union plans to alter the makeup of its executive board and regional councils and will “explore potential cost savings by using the web for meetings.” Some of the reasons to change include: “current structure not functioning – lack of attendance” and “lessens personal agenda opportunities.”

If the plan is approved, SCEA will hold only one delegate assembly a year, and will change the definition of a quorum because of the “difficulty in meeting quorum” under the current definition. The number and designation of SCEA’s standing committees will be changed because the “current system is not working well.” Delivery of training will be altered to “preserve our limited resources.”

But even bigger changes are coming – provided some manna falls from heaven:

* “As revenues permit, relieve UniServ from major program responsibilities.”

* “At a membership level of 50% of market potential, the SCEA will implement a released-time vice president.”

* “Hire an IT specialist as soon as the budget will support the position. As we continue to grow and prosper a staff person should be hired to handle communications and the political action programs. A teaching and learning specialist should also be hired as additional resources are realized through membership growth.”

* “When resources become available, the organization shall assess the need for hiring an assistant executive director/manager of program and staff.”

The changes listed under “culture” suggest SCEA officials haven’t been getting along too well lately: “Create an organizational culture that values and honors: …An environment free of intimidation and personal agendas. An environment which encourages the open and free exchange of information and ideas… An environment that supports a process to resolve conflict within the structure.”

SCEA is a long way from sustaining itself, much less implementing new programs funded by non-existent revenues. The question is how many SCEAs can NEA afford to subsidize?

2)  Wisconsin Union Seeks to Establish Control over Madison Local. The split between the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) and Madison Teachers, Inc. (MTI) is widening over allegations that WEAC reneged on a verbal agreement to end the dispute.

The Madison local sued WEAC last year over violation of its 1978 affiliation agreement, which guarantees, among other things, reimbursement of the local’s legal expenses. WEAC, for its part, unilaterally terminated the agreement, claiming MTI improperly incorporated other WEAC locals under its own UniServ umbrella.

The two unions remain officially connected, though their argument has expanded into other areas, including the affiliation agreement’s arbitration provision. Last November 26, MTI Executive Director John Matthews met privately with WEAC President Stan Johnson to iron out their differences. What happened at that meeting is in dispute, but Matthews told his members that the two had reached a verbal agreement, which Johnson then asked Matthews to draft for their respective signatures. The one-page document merely amends the previous affiliation agreement to include a provision for a “mutually agreeable mediator” and the reduction of WEAC’s legal expense obligation in certain cases to one-half.

On December 3, Matthews received a letter from WEAC Executive Director Michael Butera, which contained “a comprehensive proposal to settle all the outstanding issues between WEAC and MTI.” The WEAC proposal runs 11 pages, and essentially creates an entirely new affiliation agreement, with specific provisions governing membership, hiring, unified dues, UniServ subsidies, dues transmittal, and PAC recommendations. It also places a three-year expiration date on the agreement and a cap on legal spending reimbursements of $300,000 or 2.5 times the average WEAC annual per member legal cost, whichever is greater.

MTI’s reaction was immediate. MTI President Jim Skaggs sent a letter to every other WEAC local president explaining the situation. Matthews sent a letter to WEAC rejecting the proposal in no uncertain terms.

In a January 8, 2004 response, WEAC Executive Director Butera denied Matthews’ assertion that the union had reneged on the original agreement. “This office didn’t overturn any agreement because no such agreement was reached,” he wrote.

Butera then made a pitch for solidarity. “As we have stated many times,” he wrote, “unions best operate by building solidarity from within. It is important to have rich conversations, for all the issues to be discussed and for differing views to be passionately exchanged. However, in the end, the need for solidarity and direction based on the actions of our governing bodies is fundamental to our success for our members and the institution of public education.”

By way of reply, MTI is keeping count of the days that have passed since Matthews’ conversation with Johnson. “It has been 67 days since WEAC President Johnson failed to honor his word,” reads MTI’s latest newsletter.

3)  Are Teacher Unions the Fourth Branch of Government? The effect of private special interests on government operations and decision-making is hardly a new topic, or a partisan one. People all along the political spectrum have complained that too many policies are designed to benefit the connected few instead of the huddled masses. But the images we associate with such occurrences are backroom deals, smoke-filled rooms and envelopes under tables. Backroom deals aren’t usually announced afterwards with press conferences.

Except nowadays, in places like California, where the new governor introduced his education budget proposal after a series of negotiations with the California Teachers Association (CTA). The mandates of state law would have increased spending on public education by $4 billion next year. However, the governor, with the concurrence of two-thirds of the legislature, has the ability to declare a fiscal emergency and suspend the funding guarantee. Instead, Gov. Schwarzenegger called in CTA officers and cut a deal, providing only $2 billion in new spending and deferring the rest. Schwarzenegger then announced the arrangement in a press conference with CTA President Barbara Kerr, in which she also answered questions about the deal.

The deal reportedly caught legislators off-guard, the Sacramento Bee declaring that the union “generated both confusion and anger among its normal Democratic allies.”

In Alabama, the teachers’ union is holding its own legislative committee hearings. Alabama Education Association Executive Secretary Paul Hubbert hosted members of the state house education budget committee in his office to discuss new sources of revenue for public education. Hubbert later announced he had compiled a list of nearly $700 million in possible tax increases. The Mobile Register reported that Hubbert “is looking at a mix of statutory tax changes, which the Legislature could enact on its own, and constitutional tax changes, which would require a statewide vote.” The citizens of Alabama overwhelmingly voted down a $1 billion tax increase last September.

In Illinois, Gov. Rod Blagojevich is under fire for consulting with the Illinois Education Association (IEA) and the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) while crafting his school oversight plan. He didn’t, however, consult with legislators or state education officials. “I can’t bring a check to the table,” state Superintendent of Instruction Robert Schiller told the Chicago Tribune. The governor’s plan would strip power from the state board of education and place it in the hands of a new agency under the governor’s control. The unions held a news conference to express their support for the idea.

Arguing over the relative merits of each of these proposals is part of the democratic process. But who gave Barbara Kerr, Paul Hubbert and the IEA/IFT officials the right to negotiate state policy? If Gov. Schwarzenegger announced a budget proposal after negotiations with WalMart, people would be upset. If Lockheed held meetings with Alabama legislators and then announced a list of corporate tax breaks it desired, voters would be outraged. Gov. Blagojevich’s predecessor was indicted for steering state business to his friends and associates.

It is also worth noting that the members of CTA did not have an opportunity to review – much less approve or veto – Kerr’s deal with Schwarzenegger. Alabama teachers are not scrutinizing Hubbert’s list of tax hikes. Illinois education employees were not asked what they thought of the governor’s reform plan.

Special interests are special interests, whether they are seeking advantages for oil production, tobacco farming, submarine construction, or teachers’ salaries.

4)  Hail to the New Federalists! Back on March 3, 2003, EIA highlighted the remarks of Matt Jacobs, now the vice president of NEA New York, because he had a unique solution for the union’s problems with the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Jacobs suggested that states could avoid the mandates of the law “by simply refusing to comply.” Turning down the federal funding that accompanies NCLB would not only be right, but cost-effective, because the law “compels states to expend many times that amount complying with unwanted, educationally unsound federal mandates.”

Little did anyone know that Jacobs’ proposal foreshadowed a strange alliance between mostly liberal members of the education establishment and mostly conservative states’ rights advocates against NCLB:

* In Utah, the House Education Committee unanimously approved a bill to refuse the $103 million in NCLB money. “This really is a states’ rights issue,” Utah Rep. Margaret Dayton told the Salt Lake Tribune. “Our neighborhood schools should not be held accountable to the federal government.” The measure will now go to the full House.

* The Idaho Legislature and the Idaho Education Association are working together to draft language on a resolution to Congress to alter several mandates of NCLB.

* The Virginia House of Delegates passed a resolution asking Congress to exempt the state from NCLB provisions in order to keep their own state standards.

All three of these bodies are controlled by Republicans. In addition, there have been various efforts in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and Hawaii to distance states from the federal standards, though most want to avoid burning the funding bridge.

Some Democrats have noticed they are defending unusual ground. The Progressive Policy Institute (PPI), an arm of the Democratic Leadership Council, declared “we have been dismayed at the willingness of many NCLB opponents to align themselves with political actors, positions, and rhetoric with which they have little else in common. That some ultra-conservative politicians and states’ rights zealots oppose NCLB is not a good reason for progressives to make common cause with them.”

PPI published an essay on the issue by Leo Casey, a long-time organizer for the United Federation of Teachers. Casey warned: “It will be most unfortunate if, in the wake of NCLB, educational progressives myopically and ahistorically wave the banner or join with those waving the banner of states’ rights or local control against the federal government. In time they may well find themselves to have been their own worst enemy.”

5)  Bullock Goes to the Pen. A U.S. District Judge sentenced former Washington Teachers Union President Barbara Bullock to nine years in prison, three years in a halfway house, 3,000 hours of community service, and ordered her to pay $4.6 million in restitution to the union. Bullock pleaded guilty to conspiracy and mail fraud related to her misappropriation of member dues for her personal use.

Bullock apologized for her crimes, and claimed she had a bipolar disorder that helped explain her shopping sprees with dues money.

6)  Clarification. An item in last week’s communiqué mentioned a dispute between the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) and the West Virginia Federation of Teachers (WVFT) and ended with “they endorsed different rivals for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination over claims of secret deals to shut the other organization out of education policy matters.”

This left the impression that both organizations had been accused of the same tactic. In fact, as reported in the November 17, 2003 EIA Communiqué, WVEA’s endorsed candidate, Joe Manchin, made a statement indicating he would deny access to WVFT if he were elected governor. There has been no accusation that WVFT made any similar arrangement with its endorsed candidate. EIA apologizes for the inaccuracy.

7)  Quote of the Week. “We’re not going to panic. The house isn’t on fire.” – Rick Trombly, public affairs director for NEA New Hampshire, prior to that state’s primaries. The union broke with tradition this year and endorsed a candidate in the primaries, choosing Howard Dean. NEA New Hampshire claimed 1,500 members worked for Dean in the state, and the union sent an additional letter to members supporting Dean after his loss in Iowa. (January 22 Burlington Free Press)


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