The Education Intelligence Agency’s Mike Antonucci reports that earlier this month the country’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association (NEA), struggled to “put a happy face on some sad numbers.”

At the NEA National Convention, secretary-treasurer Becky Pringle cooed about not losing as many members as projected last year. “So give yourselves a round of applause!” But Antonucci reports that the hard numbers tell a different story:

A visit to teachers’ unions’ web sites will tell you that NEA has 3 million members and AFT [American Federation of Teachers] 1.5 million. But they don’t have 4.5 million members between them. More than 600,000 belong to both unions, but they don’t pay double dues. NEA has 256,000 retiree members, who are important as advocates but provide only 1 percent of the budget. Ditto for the 62,000 student members, who add less than $1 million. NEA has 47,000 life members, who paid a single fee back in the old days and now contribute no money.

The life blood of NEA is employed, full-time teachers, professionals and support personnel. For the school year 2013-14, NEA now projects the number of those folks, full-time equivalent, will be just barely over 2 million, less than 1.7 million of them teachers.

‘We lost members this year. We will continue to lose members next year,’ said Pringle, adding, ‘We are worried, most especially about our large affiliates.’

But losing smaller affiliates adds up, too. As the Heartland Institute’s School Reform News reports:

Teachers in tiny Deerfield, Kansas voted to remove themselves from the Kansas National Education Association and the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union. Instead, they joined a local-only teacher association in June.

In 2012-2013, KNEA and NEA dues were nearly $600, an amount teachers were no longer willing to pay, said Joel McClure, a lead negotiator for the Deerfield teachers.

‘The more information teachers have about alternatives, truly professional alternatives, they aren’t wanting to give their money to KNEA or NEA,’ McClure said.

Smaller associations of professional educators are increasingly taking on teachers union establishments in the states and nationwide. While NEA reps may say they’re really only concerned about their big fish affiliates, their smaller fish local unions are “the power base of the entire union movement,” according to Stanford University’s Terry Moe, because teachers are more connected to their local colleagues rather than far-removed union leaders who do not necessarily share their political views.

Moe cautions that isolated local defections may not make a full-scale movement, but it is worth noting that local—voluntary—unions are increasingly realizing that they can provided all the benefits that their members need without all the costly partisan politics they don’t.