The fight to keep public schools open for in-person learning in 2022 has many parents thinking about teachers’ unions and the power and influence they wield.
Everyone loves the party game “Two Truths and a Lie.” Can you identify which of the three following statements about teachers’ unions is a lie?
A. Despite declines in union membership overall, teachers’ unions have held steady.
B. Every public school teacher belongs to a teachers’ union.
C. Teachers’ unions are partisan even though their members are politically diverse.
A. TRUTH. Overall union membership has been declining for decades, falling to its lowest levels in 2019. However, membership in public-sector unions, to which most unionized teachers belong, has remained stable and continues to outnumber private-sector unions by a measure of five to one. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, education, training, and library occupations enjoy the second-highest unionization rates. The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are the two leading teachers’ unions and represent over 3 million teachers, most of the nation’s public school teachers, and as much as 40 percent of all public sector employees.
B. LIE. Not all public school teachers belong to a teachers’ union, but a significant number do. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, for the 2015-16 school year–the latest data available–there were 3.8 million public school teachers. Some 70% of these teachers belonged to a union or employee association. Interestingly, three out of four teachers in traditional public schools belong to a union compared to just one out of four in charter schools. Teachers are not the only members of unions, public school support staff, such as secretaries, bus drivers, and cafeteria workers, belong to teachers’ unions.
Neither union membership nor support for union causes is compulsory. The Supreme Court handed public-sector employees this important victory in 2018 in Janus v. Afscme. The Court upheld that public employees who choose not to be a part of a union can not be forced to pay union dues and subsidize speech on which they disagree. As the stability of union membership demonstrates, Janus was not the death-knell some predicted that it would be.
C. TRUTH. Nearly all of NEA’s and AFT’s campaign cash contributions (and get-out-the-vote operations) have been for Democratic campaigns. Teachers’-union members regularly constitute at least 10 percent of the delegates at the Democratic National Convention. However, teachers themselves identify as more politically diverse with just a slight lean to the left. According to a 2017 survey by Education Week, 31 percent of educators described themselves as Democrats, 30 percent as independents, and 27 percent as Republicans.
Parents and some lawmakers have rightly blamed teachers’ unions for effectively holding children’s educations hostage to their demands.
Teachers’ unions claim to be acting on behalf of and for the best of their members, not children. Their actions two years into the pandemic, which are neither science-based nor to the good of the students that they educate, demonstrate their real priorities.