Are Teacher Unions the Fourth Branch of Government?
The effect of private special interests on government operations and decision-making is hardly a new topic, or a partisan one. People all along the political spectrum have complained that too many policies are designed to benefit the connected few instead of the huddled masses. But the images we associate with such occurrences are backroom deals, smoke-filled rooms and envelopes under tables. Backroom deals arena usually announced afterwards with press conferences.
Except nowadays, in places like California, where the new governor introduced his education budget proposal after a series of negotiations with the California Teachers Association (CTA). The mandates of state law would have increased spending on public education by $4 billion next year. However, the governor, with the concurrence of two-thirds of the legislature, has the ability to declare a fiscal emergency and suspend the funding guarantee. Instead, Gov. Schwarzenegger called in CTA officers and cut a deal, providing only $2 billion in new spending and deferring the rest. Schwarzenegger then announced the arrangement in a press conference with CTA President Barbara Kerr, in which she also answered questions about the deal.
The deal reportedly caught legislators off-guard, the Sacramento Bee declaring that the union generated both confusion and anger among its normal Democratic allies.
In Alabama, the teachers union is holding its own legislative committee hearings. Alabama Education Association Executive Secretary Paul Hubbert hosted members of the state house education budget committee in his office to discuss new sources of revenue for public education. Hubbert later announced he had compiled a list of nearly $700 million in possible tax increases. The Mobile Register reported that Hubbert is looking at a mix of statutory tax changes, which the Legislature could enact on its own, and constitutional tax changes, which would require a statewide vote. The citizens of Alabama overwhelmingly voted down a $1 billion tax increase last September.
In Illinois, Gov. Rod Blagojevich is under fire for consulting with the Illinois Education Association (IEA) and the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) while crafting his school oversight plan. He didn't, however, consult with legislators or state education officials. "Can't bring a check to the table," state Superintendent of Instruction Robert Schiller told the Chicago Tribune. The governor's plan would strip power from the state board of education and place it in the hands of a new agency under the governor's control. The unions held a news conference to express their support for the idea.
Arguing over the relative merits of each of these proposals is part of the democratic process. But who gave Barbara Kerr, Paul Hubbert and the IEA/IFT officials the right to negotiate state policy? If Gov. Schwarzenegger announced a budget proposal after negotiations with WalMart, people would be upset. If Lockheed held meetings with Alabama legislators and then announced a list of corporate tax breaks it desired, voters would be outraged. Gov. Blagojevich's predecessor was indicted for steering state business to his friends and associates.
It is also worth noting that the members of CTA did not have an opportunity to review much less approve or veto Kerr's deal with Schwarzenegger. Alabama teachers are not scrutinizing Hubbert's list of tax hikes. Illinois education employees were not asked what they thought of the governor's reform plan.
Special interests are special interests, whether they are seeking advantages for oil production, tobacco farming, submarine construction, or teachers' salaries.
NEA's status as the largest single union in the United States partially disguises its dependency on strong collective bargaining and agency fee laws for membership growth. In states like California and New Jersey, NEA's dominance is untouchable, but in Southern states, NEA affiliates have been traditionally weak, and are getting weaker.
In three states Missouri, Texas and Georgia NEA members are outnumbered by teachers who belong to independent, non-union education associations. In a fourth state, Mississippi, it is almost certain that the state's independent teacher group has finally overtaken the NEA state affiliate in membership. The AFT outnumbers NEA in Louisiana, thanks to a large local in New Orleans, and most of NEA's membership losses last year occurred in the South.
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