Who Should Speak for Teachers?

By Judy Cresanta, Gary Beckner
  • Saturday, July 15, 2000

Teacher unions have dominated the debate and direction of education for almost three decades. They have used vast amounts of money to lobby for the legislative authority needed to force teachers to pay more dues, thereby perpetuating union agendas. And they have carefully controlled the flow of information to their members and the public. The political establishment all too often relies on educational information from just two sources: the U.S. Department of Education and the National Education Association (NEA) teacher union. The shortsightedness of this reliance becomes obvious when one understands that the former gets most of its information from the latter. However as Future Shock author Alvin Toffler observed, “knowledge is a hard thing to monopolize.” Challenging information is now beginning to find its way to educators, and it is awakening them to the detrimental effects that unions can have on education in general, and on teachers’ reputations and livelihood in particular. Enter the Association of American Educators (AAE), which emphasizes professionalism, not one-size-fits-all labor unionism.

Follow the Money

The AAE is a nonprofit, nonpartisan teacher association that provides most of the protections that the NEA offers but at a fraction of the cost: only $99 a year, as opposed to NEA dues of more than $600 per year.  NEA membership dues account for over 90 percent of the union’s general fund income. The dues payments are transmitted monthly from the state and local affiliates to the national headquarters. Obviously, maintaining over 2 million dues-paying members is crucial to NEA’s finances and partisan ambitions. Until 1975, it was possible for teachers to be members of the local, state or national union without necessarily paying dues at the two other levels.  NEA membership was much lower than membership in the state associations and local associations; now the opposite is true. Here is the 1993-94 dues structure for teachers in the Washoe County School District:

Washoe County Education Association $165
Nevada State Education Association $376
National Education Association $99
Unified Dues $640

Besides the obvious bargain the AAE provides to members, it also believes that teachers’ and teacher associations’ first duty is to students, not union interests. How does the AAE account for the price differential? It does not contribute any of its members’ dues to political candidates or to political parties. Such contributions by the teacher unions have been as high as 50 percent of dues in some states—and carefully disguised as policy promotion and other obsequious agendas. The percentage of union dues dedicated to political activities is difficult to determine in Nevada, since the union is not required to disclose exactly how it spends its members’ dues. We have called for accountability in other industries; why not in education?

Moving Toward Accountability

Legislation that would better inform teachers of their rights would cause unions to be more attentive to their membership and responsive to the public’s need to know, since teachers are public employees. Eliminating their unfair privileges will force unions to spend more of their dues to absorb various costs that taxpayers are now subsidizing. Taxpayers should be informed that they are paying for costs that the unions should be paying for themselves. For instance, school districts often provide generous amounts of “release time” with pay for the union bargaining team. In these situations, the district often pays the salary and fringe benefits for the teachers and cost of the substitutes needed as well. Those costs should be paid for out of union dues, not tax money.

Payroll Deductions

The most critical subsidy is payroll deduction and transmittal of union dues and political action committee funds at no cost to the union. Unquestionably, union revenues would plummet in the absence of payroll deduction, which is a cost the school districts agree to at the expense of the taxpayer. To avoid waivers by union-dominated school boards, state legislatures could enact a minimum collection fee, leaving it to the school boards to require higher fees if appropriate. One thing is for certain: If the payroll-deduction privilege were eliminated, unions would be hard-pressed to justify their questionable dues. If teachers had to write a personal check each year to pay their union dues, the unions would have to do a much better job of selling their services and listening to their members. Many  NEA members hold views that are diametrically opposed to the union’s officially endorsed positions. It makes sense that state legislators would want to know what teachers think about reform initiatives not just what union bosses think.

Recently, the NEA boasted that its membership continues to grow, despite the activities of independent associations, such as the AAE. This claim is specious for two reasons. First, prior to the NEA’s conversion to a self-perpetuating “unified” dues policy in the 1970s, NEA membership was reportedly on the decrease—as was private-sector unionism in general. If NEA membership is increasing today, it is because of agency shop laws which exist in most states and allow it to force new teachers to pay dues to the “agent,” whether they want the agent’s representation or not. Second, NEA officials have never exhibited enough confidence to drop their unified dues structure, thus allowing teachers to voluntarily pay dues at whatever level they deem appropriate.


The AAE believes that political solutions and help from the public sector may sometimes be necessary, but taxpayers should not be the first source teachers turn to. The NEA is continually lobbying for more federal, state and local dollars but it refuses to couple these requests with accountability. The AAE believes that education is not in a financial crisis but at a financial crossroads, one which can only be solved by returning to education’s basic mission and investing in teacher professionalism, rather than union strong-arm tactics. 

Gary Beckner is executive director of the Association of American Educators. He can be reached at (714) 582-3206. Judy Cresanta (jc@npri.org) is founder and president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

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