Tracey Bailey almost got sucked in. He was a first-year science teacher at Satellite High School near Florida's Kennedy Space Center when the brochure from the teachers union arrived in his mailbox. "I might have joined out of naïveté," he mused, but he was just too busy to respond. Teaching five different classes every day and trying to learn the ropes of his new profession, "I was barely keeping my head above water."
So he put the brochure aside, thinking he might join later. But soon a second brochure arrived, and then a third. The language was increasingly urgent, the pressure increasingly high. One suggested the young teacher was a "freeloader," letting his colleagues pay their union dues while he enjoyed the benefits without paying his fair share.
"First I was hurt, then I just got mad," he recalled. "I thought, 'If that's what they stand for-coerced membership, subtle and not-so-subtle intimidation-then I don't want anything to do with it.'"
Instead of worrying about contracts and collective bargaining, Mr. Bailey focused on his classes and quickly earned a reputation as an outstanding teacher. After just four years in the classroom, his colleagues voted him Teacher of the Year at Satellite High. That unsought honor automatically put him into the running for county Teacher of the Year, which he won. Ditto state Teacher of the Year. And then, in 1993, the national title. With just six years' experience under his belt, Mr. Bailey was the youngest teacher ever to win the honor.
He had a lot to learn. During the competition for the state title, a former county winner-also a nonunion member-passed along a warning: "They told me, 'If you don't join the union, you won't go any further in this contest.'" Others added to the pressure: "You represent all teachers now; you should just join to show solidarity." Disgusted by the hard sell, Mr. Bailey says he almost withdrew his name from the competition in protest. But in the end, he decided to see where the road might lead him, and he paid his membership dues for the first-and last-time in his career.
His brief stint as a union member left Mr. Bailey with a deep antipathy toward the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the two big educators unions that are now in the process of merging. In his extensive travels as Teacher of the Year, he realized he wasn't the only one disgusted with the left-wing politics of the unions. "I've never met such a large number of people who feel so bad about the organization they belong to, yet spend so much money to belong."
Only after his year on the national stage did Mr. Bailey discover there were options for all the disillusioned teachers like himself. He joined the California-based Association of American Educators and quickly became one of its star spokesmen. With the fervor of an evangelist, he began spreading the word that teachers could know where their dues were going, that they didn't have to support liberal PACs, underwrite politically correct sensitivity courses, or go on strike like factory workers.
Last month in Florida, he was still evangelizing. With officials from independent state organizations across the country gathered at an Orlando hotel, Mr. Bailey and his colleagues were planning their next assault on the liberal education monolith. If that seems at first like a hopeless quest, the numbers suggest otherwise. Texas, Georgia, and Missouri already have independent associations with more members than the NEA, and in five other states the independent groups are big enough to make NEA honchos lose sleep at night.
"We're having fun watching them scramble," said Elizabeth Gressette, executive director of the Palmetto State Teachers Association in South Carolina, an NEA alternative group with about 6,000 members. "They're putting big bucks into fighting us." Though the NEA still claims about 10,000 members in South Carolina, Ms. Gressette says the union's numbers have declined by about 1,000 in recent years, while her numbers are on the rise. To prop up its membership base, the state NEA affiliate is "signing up bus drivers and cafeteria workers like mad," while PSTA accepts only certified teachers as members.
PSTA keeps its dues low-about a third of what NEA members pay-because it doesn't have a PAC that donates to favorite political candidates, and it never makes endorsements. There's also no top-heavy bureaucracy, like the NEA's 11 UniServ representatives who coordinate strategy and organize teachers across the state at an annual salary of about $60,000 each. Finally, PSTA doesn't have to ship a big chunk of every member's dues off to Washington, as the NEA requires of its state affiliates.
Individual NEA members have long griped about the high dues, the bureaucracy, and the aggressive political nature of their union. So why do they stay? In a word: Insurance. In a litigious society, students and parents are increasingly unwilling to respect the authority of teachers. An educator who disciplines a child or gives a bad grade on a final exam can quickly find herself in the middle of an expensive, time-consuming lawsuit. The NEA touts its liability insurance as one of the prime benefits of membership, and thousands of teachers dutifully write their checks each year primarily because they want that protection.
"But that's like buying a car because you want the plastic gas cap," said Mr. Bailey. In seminars to prospective AAE members, he asks how much of their NEA dues they think is earmarked for insurance-$100? $150? $200? The real answer, he says, always elicits a gasp: The $1 million Horace Mann policy purchased by the NEA for its members costs just $5.10 a year in most states. With NEA membership dues running $300 to $700 a year depending on the state, the obvious question is, What happens to the rest of the money?
"I'd be able to die happy if teachers could know where their money is going," Mr. Bailey replied with a laugh. "In way too many cases, labor unions are deceiving teachers directly and indirectly about how their money is spent and the actual cost of liability insurance."
A pair of recent lawsuits in Washington state proves that the education unions can funnel huge sums of money into controversial political activities without the knowledge or approval of their members. In one suit, the Washington Education Association, the state's NEA affiliate, paid nearly $500,000 in fines after secretly bankrolling an advertising campaign opposing charter schools. In the other case, the union settled with more than 9,000 teachers who complained that the portion of their dues earmarked for collective bargaining was actually going to the NEA's national efforts to unionize still more teachers.
Given the financial shenanigans in Washington, teachers there might be expected to desert the union in droves. But that hasn't happened, and the reason is simple: Washington is one of 22 states (plus the District of Columbia) where union dues are compulsory. In those states, understandably, there's no alternative group to join, since few would be willing to pay dues twice every year.
But in the 28 right-to-work states, anti-union groups continue to make headway. Gary Beckner, AAE's executive director, says only seven right-to-work states currently lack a statewide alternative to the NEA-and one of them will have an association up and running by the end of the year. (He did not identify the state so as not to tip off the union heads there.)
AAE helps independent-minded teachers in those states by acting as a kind of incubator for anti-union groups. The national association provides both liability insurance and organizational support until enough teachers are signed on to make a state association viable. From that point on, state groups are on their own. Members may choose to continue supporting the umbrella organization, but they'll never be forced to pay national dues like NEA members. "If we do our job right, in 10 years we'll be looking for new work," Mr. Beckner said.
It's slow going, to be sure. Jim Hawkins, state director of Professional Educators of Iowa, says about 1,600 of his state's 40,000 teachers have joined the fledgling association. The union is fighting back: Some schools allow payroll deductions only for NEA membership, while others refuse to let PEI distribute its promotional materials through the school mail system.
Despite the opposition, PEI's membership is growing at 30 percent a year, and Mr. Hawkins says his goal is to pass the local NEA affiliate. "With our message of doing what's best for children, we could probably reach half the teachers in the state eventually."
After 25 years with the Palmetto State Teachers Association, Ms. Gressette is a lot closer to that goal than many of her colleagues. And she's not about to slow down. She's recently started a student chapter to attract college education majors, and she hunts for new members at local educators conventions that the NEA is too busy to bother with. "Wherever the teachers are, honey, we're going to be there," she promised.