By Ben Velderman
WASHINGTON D.C. – Is this the beginning of the end for the National Education Association?
That question seems to be hanging in the air as 7,400 NEA delegates gather in Washington D.C. for the union’s annual meeting.
The NEA currently holds the distinction of being both the nation’s largest teachers union and the largest labor union, but its power and prestige appears to be waning. And fast.
Leaders are projecting the NEA’s membership rolls will drop by 308,000 members between 2010 and 2014, which will translate into a $65 million loss in revenue, reports USA Today.
The union is already experiencing a financial crunch. The NEA has 70 fewer staffers, and has had to dip heavily into its contingency fund to balance its budget for the past two years, reports Mike Antonucci.
Conditions are so bleak that NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen has been quoted as saying, “Times have been bad before, but they’ve never been this bad.”
Some of the NEA’s closest political friends are even choosing to keep their distance, lest the union’s illness proves contagious.
President Barack Obama will not make an appearance during the NEA’s 11-day meeting. . Instead union delegates will hear from Vice President Joe Biden, “the nation’s official consolation prize,” writes Antonucci.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman – the NEA’s 2012 Friend of Education award winner – skipped an invitation to pick up his award at the meeting, and reportedly did not even send a thank you letter, according to Antonucci.
Who’s to blame for the NEA’s decline?
Union leaders are blaming Republican lawmakers for failing to “properly fund” K-12 education – which leads to fewer school employees overall – and for passing legislation that makes joining the union more cumbersome.
The truth is the NEA has cannibalized itself.
Many of the NEA’s local affiliates have refused to make any wage and benefit concessions that would allow cash starved school districts to avoid teacher layoffs. Veteran teachers with seniority protection know they’re not in danger of being laid off, so they’ve chosen to protect their own financial interests instead of the jobs of their youngest colleagues.
For instance, the 18,000-member Clark County Education Association in Las Vegas recently won an arbitration ruling that gives veteran teachers a pay raise that will be financed by the layoff of 1,350 younger teachers. Similar situations have occurred all across the country, albeit on a smaller scale.
The other major reason for the NEA’s decline is that teachers are fleeing the union of their own accord. The NEA’s state affiliate in Wisconsin, for example, is reporting a 20,000 to 30,000 drop in membership, thanks to a new state law that makes union membership optional.
The teacher unions have become notorious for their left-wing political activism, and a growing number of not-so-liberal teachers have had enough. Politically conservative or moderate teachers are either quitting the union, or choosing to pay union fees, an alternative to full-fledged membership.
The majority of adults who enter the teaching profession do so because they care about children. And time and again, they’ve been forced to recognize that their union is more interested in money, power and political influence.
Some have suggested the NEA will respond to this crisis with a course correction, moderating their political views and becoming more cooperative with education reform efforts.
We’re not so sure.
Given its current group of leaders, the NEA still seems more concerned about being politically “pure” than pragmatic. If they keep hemorrhaging members, NEA leaders know they’ll eventually reach the point where all of their remaining members will be hardcore leftists. They seem okay with that.
So while it’s tempting to speculate that this is the beginning of the end for the NEA, the reality is that it will always be around. It will just be smaller, angrier, and more militant.
And it will have as much relevance and influence as the Daughters of the American Revolution or the local Lion’s Club.
That will be a very good thing for public education in America.