Teachers across the nation want their profession to be regarded as legitimate, gaining the recognition and respect that comes from that distinction. One way that teachers address this need is through organizing themselves into professional associations. Two major national associations have dominated the scene over the past thirty years, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Combined, these two organizations have a membership of over 3 million, with the largest share belonging to the NEA at 2.2 million members.
Despite the enormous presence of these two organizations, several other teacher organizations, also known as independent education associations (IEAs), emerged to act separately on behalf of teachers at the local, state, and national levels. While these alternative organizations were established for a variety of reasons, many were created in reaction to the structures, political strategies, and/or focus of the two major national unions. IEA membership— local, state, and national—is estimated at 300,000. The greatest appearance and strength of IEAs remains at the local and state levels, with Texas, Georgia and Missouri totaling 160,000 members—each larger than their respective state NEA or AFT affiliates.
In order for these independent education associations to grow and flourish, several strategies must be considered including legal, organizational, procedural, and structural. Many of the privileges that the two major unions have exist because of legislation within the states and districts. Following are examples of legislative action that would aid teachers and IEAs:
Bargaining Laws. Central to these would be the repeal of exclusive bargaining rights that only allow negotiations with a single union. In Missouri, for example, school boards cannot enter into a contract other than with individual teachers, though it is not illegal to adopt proposals from teacher groups.
Reverse Checkoff. The “reverse checkoff,” whereby funds are withheld unless the worker specifically asks for its return, is prohibited by federal law and in many states. Therefore, it might be possible to prohibit it in other states.
PAC Contributions. In 1995, Michigan, which has historically had one of the strongest state education associations in the nation, banned both unions and corporations from collecting political contributions through automatic payroll deductions. The Michigan Education Association took the law to court, but it was upheld.
Membership Resignation. The ruling in Pattern Makers League of North America v. NLRB, 473, U.S. 95 (1985) that union members in the private sector have the right to resign their membership at any time, if extended to members of all public unions as well, could improve teacher options.
By removing these and other legal and procedural barriers, IEAs would be better able to compete with the NEA and AFT. More importantly, teachers will benefit by having a greater choice of representation, enjoying many of the benefits of belonging to a professional organization (e.g. liability insurance, knowledge sharing), often with lower membership dues.
This report gives a brief history of teacher organizations in the Unites States, along with a profile of several local, state, and national independent education organizations and the services that they offer for teachers along with their strengths and weaknesses. The report concludes with specific recommendations that would increase the ability of these alternative organizations to better represent their members and provide teachers with a diverse arena of professional organizations from which to choose.