Unions must fear lost membership more than lost teacher tenure

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Rick Scott will be inaugurated as Florida’s 45th governor in just eight days, following one of the nation’s closest gubernatorial races, and it is worth reflecting on what drove the Florida Education Association to call it “the most important election of our lifetime.” Those who think efforts to reduce tenure and increase merit pay are what will break the unions are missing the most important business ingredient here – market share.

FEA’s preferred candidate for governor, state CFO Alex Sink, lost by only 1.2 percentage points in a Republican landslide that saw the other four statewide Democrats lose by an average of 19 points. In the campaign’s final hectic days, a get-out-the-vote memo to members from my friend Jeff Wright, FEA’s director of public policy advocacy, helped explain the passion. He felt the same pressures I faced when I was a union president. To be a viable business, the union must maintain its membership base. Fewer members means less money and less clout.

“FEA is the only organization that has consistently fought back on stupid policies that do harm to students and to the people we represent,” Jeff wrote. “If we are no longer strong due to reduction in the number of people served by public schools, then they can do what they want with the education budgets of today.”

The flip side is that, when I was a union president, I knew that battles over tenure were great for business. That’s because teacher unions are in the business of selling protection, and anything that causes teachers to experience more job-related fear or insecurity increases union membership. I could never say so publicly, but the elimination of tenure would mean the union contract would be the only protection teachers had. That’s amounts to a full employment act for unions.

I had a similar attitude toward merit pay. Many teachers genuinely don’t think it’s possible to create a one-size-fits-all merit pay plan that is fair. Consequently merit pay proposals create fear and insecurity and also increase union membership.

What teacher unions do fear are publicly-funded education programs that operate outside their collective bargaining agreements. Soon after President Obama was elected, Randi Weingarten, the comparatively progressive president of the American Federation of Teachers, declared she wanted to work with reformers and that “no issue should be off the table.” But she did demand one exception to that pledge – private school vouchers, by which she meant publicly-funded K-12 programs not covered by collective bargaining agreements.

During the campaign, Sink constantly reminded voters she would be “the first governor in 12 years whose two children graduated from Florida public schools.” In his election memo, Jeff warned members of the “expansion of all anti-public school programs” and his definition may have been broader than even Sink imagined. The FEA’s anti-public schools measures included “more vouchers, more charters, more virtual, more home schooling.”

The reason is that any of these programs can reduce the size of the membership pool. FEA could spend money organizing virtual, charter and private school teachers into industrial-style bargaining units, but these units would in most cases be too small to generate an acceptable return on investment. Therefore FEA sees spending money to prevent teachers and parents from creating learning options outside the control of school boards and teachers unions as the smarter business move.

Eventually teacher unions will need business models that allow them to have profitable relationships with publicly-funded educators not employed by school districts. But at the moment there’s no financial incentive to do so. With state legislatures pushing tenure and merit pay proposals this spring, teacher unions will be flush with cash over the next few years and highly resistant to change.