Hmm: Teachers' Union Membership and Political Influence Beginning to Decrease

Kate Hicks

7/3/2012 4:05:00 PM - Kate Hicks

USA Today has a story on new numbers from the National Education Association (NEA), the nation’s largest teachers’ union: union membership is shrinking, and the demographic information about teachers has changed in a major way. All in all, it’s indicative a shift within the community of educators:

The National Education Association (NEA) has lost more than 100,000 members since 2010. By 2014, union projections show, it could lose a cumulative total of about 308,000 full-time teachers and other workers, a 16% drop from 2010. Lost dues will shrink NEA's budget an estimated $65 million, or 18%.

NEA calls the membership losses "unprecedented" and predicts they may be a sign of things to come. "Things will never go back to the way they were," reads its 2012-14 strategic plan, citing changing teacher demographics, attempts by some states to restrict public employee collective bargaining rights and an "explosion" in online learning that could sideline flesh-and-blood teachers.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel claims that this smaller membership base means they’ll be stronger. Of course, this language evokes President Obama’s defense of our new, “leaner” military budget, and seems like positive spin on some pretty negative numbers.

It’s too soon to tell what exact effect the losses will have on the union’s influence, but it’s likely to reduce the NEA’s impact on political affairs. Indeed, there are other trends related to this membership drop that seem to indicate this is already happening.

Take, for instance, the NEA’s annual conference, happening now in Washington, DC. Typically, a Democratic presidential candidate would stop by, especially in an election year, when there’s a greater need to gin up enthusiasm. But this year, the president opted to send Vice President Joe Biden. The theories abound:

Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation, a non-partisan think tank, said it's unclear whether Obama skipped the event because he can easily count on NEA's support or because its political influence has waned, in part because of bruising battles over collective bargaining in states such as Wisconsin and Michigan. Either way, he said, proposals that NEA has long fought, such as private-school vouchers, are gaining traction.

"Obviously in Democratic politics, if they have a half-million fewer members at some point and a lot fewer dollars, there's absolutely a point when they're going to matter less than they do today — and that's going to hurt them," said Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, a non-partisan think tank.

Losing that many members is "the kind of shift in the landscape that can force union leaders to shift their stance on issues," Hess said.

Indeed, Scott Walker’s victory in Wisconsin reveals the impatience many Americans have with the unions, so it’s unsurprising that the president would’ve avoided this gathering if he has no need to win them over. Obama has the NEA’s support; now, the trick is to avoid looking like he’s overly sympathetic to a cause that’s been losing at the ballot box everywhere, from California to Wisconsin to Chicago to Michigan.

However, as noted, the downward trend in union membership speaks to a rising pattern in the education profession: increasingly, new teachers are young, and they don’t stay for long.

Demographic changes are shaping union membership numbers. Public schools rely more heavily than ever on young, inexperienced teachers who quit after just a few years and are less likely to join a union than in previous years. In 1988, the typical teacher had 15 years of experience, according to research by the University of Pennsylvania's Richard Ingersoll. By 2008, it was down to one year. "An increasing number of them are not sticking around," Ingersoll said. "There's this constant replenishment of beginners."

The prevalence of young, inexperienced, short-term teachers means that yes, the union’s power will begin to wane, but that there’s a cultural shift at play in the classroom, too, one that warrants some major changes in education policy. After all, unions may protect bad teachers based on seniority, but it could also be said that young people who don’t intend to stay in the profession long are also insulated from the outcome of poor teaching.

America’s education system is at a crossroads, and as demographics and the powerful union influence begin to shift, it’s a chance to reevaluate not merely who is teaching our kids, but also, what they’re being taught. Perhaps now the focus can shift away from political disputes toward a discussion of meaningful education reform.