Features

A schoolhouse divided

National | To the alarm of the big teachers unions, nonideological competitors are forming in right-to-work states

Issue: "Casualty of 'peace'," March 24, 2001

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.'"

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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.

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