The Shrinking Teacher Union Brand

Teachers unions are losing members, but stubbornly stick with the same old product.

Earlier this month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics informed us that in 2014 – for the second year in a row – that there are fewer unionized than non-unionized teachers in the U.S. The reasons for this are many: more right-to-work states, a population shift to right-to-work states, an increase in mostly non-unionized charter schools and an uptick in the number of families availing themselves of school choice opportunities and sending their kids to private schools. Mike Antonucci writes, “Of the 4,535,249 teachers employed in elementary, secondary and special education in 2014, only 49 percent were union members. And the unionization rates for pre-k, kindergarten and higher education were much lower.” Antonucci also points out that while there were 34,921 more teachers overall in 2014, the unions were able to recruit only 10.7 percent of them.

By the way, it’s not just the teacher union brand that is suffering. According to the latest data, all union membership sagged to 11.1 percent, a drop from 11.3 in 2013, with just 14.6 million wage and salaried workers maintaining membership. The rate of union affiliation has been sliding for 30 years now. It did grow slightly from 12.1 percent in 2007 to 12.4 percent in 2008, but that was the only bright spot in some time for organized labor.

So in the smoke-free equivalents of smoke-filled rooms across the country, union kingpins are chewing on that old question, “What are we gonna do about this?!”

Well, where right-to-work legislation and litigation advance, unions will actually have to become responsive to the wishes of their members and make joining more attractive to would-be members. But as long as we have a forced-dues model throughout much of the land, most thoughts aren’t going in that direction. To be sure, many teachers, especially the younger ones, resent many union-mandated conventions like “last in/first out” as well as many aspects of the typical union contract strait-jacket. But politics plays an important role in the problem for teachers of all ages.

Politically speaking, responsiveness to its members has never been a hallmark of the teacher union elite. A small vocal and radical few determine policy for the larger group who are either ignorant of their actions, apathetic about politics, or they are intimidated by the more vociferous members. If you have any doubts about union-leadership politics, just look at the presidents of large union locals like Bob Peterson (Milwaukee), Alex Caputo-Pearl (Los Angeles) and Karen Lewis (Chicago) – all socialist-leaning, community-organizing practitioners. While not every state and local union leader falls into this category, an overwhelming majority do, despite an internal poll by the National Education Association which found that its rank-and-file is slightly more conservative (50 percent) than liberal (43 percent) in political philosophy.

In a recent piece, Bob Peterson, who doubles as a 5th grade teacher, sounded alarm bells, writing, “If Teachers Can’t Make Their Unions More Democratic and Social Justice-Minded, Public Ed Is Doomed.” At the same time he is asking unions to become more inclusive by becoming “democratic,” he rails against Scott Walker, Paul Ryan, conservatives, white-populated areas of the state, right-wing Republicans, privatization, corporate reformers, charter schools, vouchers, etc. Peterson’s union model would include efforts to raise the minimum wage, expand healthcare coverage and voter rights, implement incarceration reform, and stop “unfair hiring practices at a major federal housing project.”

When unabashed leftist – a community organizer in teacher’s clothes – Alex Caputo-Pearl became president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles least year, he talked about the importance of “social movement unionism.” Not surprisingly, socialists are very supportive of his agenda. describes him as a “veteran union militant and community organizer” and explains that Caputo-Pearl’s organizing plan includes “… increased member involvement in political action, and putting a priority on linking community-based social justice demands to our contract negotiations.”

And then there is Chicago Teachers Union chief Karen Lewis who, like Peterson and Caputo-Pearl, believes in bringing class warfare into the classroom. As reported by EAG News’ Kyle Olson, she alludes to a “lesson’ that the aforementioned Peterson uses:

‘People always talk about how that there’s no politics and values in math. That you can teach math and there’s no place for social justice. So let me tell you how Bob deals with that,’ Lewis said.

She went on to describe a math story problem about money and the cost of pencils.

‘That’s a very political statement because it’s all about consumerism – it’s about buying stuff, right?

‘Bob Peterson tells them about José working in a factory making piecemeal clothes. He uses the same numbers and gets the same answer. And yes, math is political, too.’

So no, it’s not about unions becoming more responsive to its members, but rather forcing a left-wing agenda down teachers’ – and students’ – throats. In other words, if you are a conservative, moderate, apolitical teacher or just don’t think the unions have any business getting into non-education issues, “Shut up … but keep those dues coming, and be sure to indoctrinate the kids while you are at it!”

The bottom line is that the Bob Petersons, Alex Caputo-Pearls and Karen Lewises of teacher union-world certainly don’t represent all, or even a majority of teachers. And it seems that those who don’t agree with their union’s mandatory work rules and their leader’s strident political philosophies are finding other places to work. As right-to-work laws spread across the land and school choice policies advance, teachers will have more options and won’t be forced to buy the fading teacher union brand.

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Why the "War on Poverty," Now Entering its Fifth Decade, Has Failed

“Keep doing what yer doing and you’ll keep getting what you got.” Thus spoke Robert Woodson, explaining why the War on Poverty, now entering its fifth decade, has failed—and miserably so.

As a front-row spectator, Bob should know. He has been an outspoken civil rights activist since the 1960s, directed the National Urban League’s Administration of Justice division back in the 1970s, and in 1981 founded the Center for Neighborhood Enterprises, focusing on finding practical solutions for fighting poverty. He’s since been awarded a MacArthur genius fellowship, the Bradley Foundation Prize, and the President’s Citizens medal. And yet, Al Sharpton is the one with the TV show.

Which leads me to think he knows much that our media elites don’t. In his interview on this week’s RealClear Radio Hour Bob confirmed that suspicion.

The American public is “tired of the gladiatorial combat that masquerades as political discourse” and is “desperate for solutions that transcend the ideological divide,” he said. “The Civil Rights movement has abandoned the high ground on which it was founded. It has morphed into a race grievance industry. It has been hijacked by the Democratic Party. It has sold its soul to the highest bidder.”

Yet, far from being bitter, Bob is ever more committed to his work at the Center for Neighborhood Enterprises, where his focus is on studying, identifying, and amplifying success, not justifying, subsidizing, and profiting from failure. “The only thing you can learn from studying failure is how to create more of it.”

He argues that most government spending on poverty alleviation is misdirected. “Seventy percent of the money spent on poor people goes not to poor people; it goes to those that serve poor people. And so they ask not which problems are solvable but which problems are fundable. We’ve spent $15 trillion to aid the poor with the bulk of it going to middle class providers. We have created a commodity out of poor people and wonder why poverty expands as funding increases.”

Bob is concerned about the class divide this has created among his fellow African Americans. “Two out of 10 whites with a college education works for government. Six out of 10 blacks with a college education works for government. This makes a lot of middle class blacks part of what I call the Poverty Pentagon. The perverse incentives lead to the consequence that many middle class blacks prosper at the expense of their low income counterparts.”

Those perverse incentives promote the perpetuation and growth of the complex of social workers and welfare “rights” activists who measure their success by how many new “clients” they get to sign up for state benefits. And that is precisely why Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which turns 50 this summer, has been such a failure.

“Billions of dollars in government money has been converted into services for the poor, funding schools of social work, psychologists, drug counselors—all professional providers.  They crafted remedies for the poor that were parachuted into low income communities. If the poor did not respond by improving their conditions, rather than challenging the nature of the intervention, they demanded more money. So the more they undermined the people they were supposed to serve, the more they got rewarded with expanded budgets. We built a system where the more you fail, the more you get paid.”

So how do we break this vicious cycle? “I believe the answer is to seek solutions among what I call the social entrepreneurs that are indigenous to low income communities. We believe that the principles that work in our market economy should also work in our social economy.” And so Bob’s program seeks out families that have persevered and prospered despite the odds against them, to learn from their success and teach their lessons to others.

He also places a high premium on cultivating the personal dignity that can only come through work, describing a program in which impoverished mothers earn volunteer credits they then use to purchase Christmas gifts for their own children, avoiding having the mothers shamed by watching social workers distribute gifts to their kids.

All of this has political implications, particularly as the White House amps up its income inequality hysteria campaign. “I am encouraging the Republican Party to become competitive [among African Americans],” says Bob. “That’s why I’m taking Paul Ryan, once a month, to visit low income leaders that have triumphed over poverty and despair so that perhaps he can instruct others of his party in ways that they can become competitive. It is really hostile to the interests of America for black America to be a sole subsidiary of one political party.” But, I asked Bob directly, “Do you believe there’s an irredeemable taint of racism in the hearts of many conservative Republicans?” “Absolutely not,” he replied. “I do not believe that.”

About the Author:  In the 35 years since Bill Frezza graduated from MIT with degrees in electrical engineering and biology he has been a scientist, an engineer, a product manager, a salesman, a consultant, an entrepreneur, an author, a technology evangelist, and a venture capitalist. His early career on high-tech’s bleeding edge included the development of first generation electronic newspapers, home banking, home shopping, cable modems, multi-user videogames, wireless LANs, and wireless email, all of which became a success – for someone else a decade later. His 15 years as a venture capital investor working with early stage telecom, semiconductor, and biotech startups taught him humbleness, risk aversion, and the ability to identify ten fatal flaws out of five in any startup business plan. Frezza is a frequent guest on CNBC, FOX, and CBN News where he is challenged to reduce complex economic and policy issues into thirty second sound bites. More writing by Frezza can be found at This article originally appeared in Forbes and appears here with permission from the author.

For Whom the Pell Doles

Why are vouchers okay for college students, but not for K-12ers?

Recently, the National Education Association posted an interview with Wes Moore on its website.

Two boys are named Wes Moore. Both grow up in fatherless homes in Baltimore. Both struggle in school, and run into trouble with the police. But one Wes Moore wins admission to Johns Hopkins University and Oxford. The other earns a life sentence in a Maryland prison. In his book, The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates, Moore confronts the “other,” and finds that there are no neat answers to the disposition of fate: “The chilling truth is that his story could have been mine. The tragedy is that my story could have been his.”

At the end of the brief interview, the questioner states:

Your mother graduated from college, while Wes’ mother was forced to leave school after the Reagan-era cuts to Pell Grant funding. Do you think this made a difference?

Moore responds:

Quite honestly, I can’t help but think how different his life would have been if she had been able to finish school. It’s about this idea of social capital, expectations, the people you surround yourself with… It’s not that Wes’ mother didn’t care about Wes. We work with a lot of kids, and over decades I can probably count on two fingers the number of parents who don’t care about their kids.

But the Pell Grant story—the reason I included the Pell Grant story wasn’t just because it was a powerful story, but because anybody who doesn’t understand the implications of that moment is missing the whole point. That was a huge occasion in her life, and it should inform how we discuss policies and policy implications. This stuff matters….

Yes, Pell Grants – aka education vouchers – matter.

The Pell Grant, after starting out as the “Basic Educational Opportunity Grant,” was renamed to reflect the law’s sponsor Rhode Island Senator Clayborn Pell.

These federal funded grants are not like loans, and need not be repaid. Students may use their grants at any one of approximately 5,400 participating postsecondary institutions. These federally funded grants help about 5.4 million full-time and part-time college and vocational school students nationally. For the 2010–2011 school year, 7 of the top 10 colleges by total Pell Grant money awarded were for-profit institutions. (Emphasis added.)

For profit institutions?

That means that college students are taking public funds and using them to attend a private institution of their choosing. (And it is not only Pell Grants that enable college students to pay tuition to whichever university they choose – public or private – using taxpayer dollars. The G.I. Bill, also a voucher program, does essentially the same thing for veterans as a way to help them assimilate into civilian life. It has been a very popular program since its inception in 1944.)

To its credit, NEA realizes the value of Pell Grants, as does its sister union, the American Federation of Teachers. In fact, just last year AFT president Randi Weingarten excoriated Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan for submitting a budget that would freeze the grants at their current level.

But when it comes to K-12 schools, the unions sing a very different tune. NEA’s website has a policy brief which reads,

Vouchers aren’t a strategy for improving the public schools; they are a strategy of abandonment that would leave America’s children behind. The battle over vouchers diverts time, energy, and resources from real school improvement.

And these aren’t just idle words. In March of 2009, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel wrote a threatening letter to every Democratic member of Congress:

The National Education Association strongly opposes any extension of the District of Columbia private school voucher . . . program. We expect that Members of Congress who support public education, and whom we have supported, will stand firm against any proposal to extend the pilot program. Actions associated with these issues WILL be included in the NEA Legislative Report Card for the 111th Congress.

Vouchers are not real education reform. . . . Opposition to vouchers is a top priority for NEA. (Emphasis added.)

Weingarten is just as hostile to K-12ers receiving public funding to attend a private school. During Mitt Romney’s run for president in 2012 she declared,

Today, Mitt Romney squandered an opportunity to participate in a meaningful discussion of real education reform by attempting to disguise attacks on teachers and public education as meaningful policy proposals. Instead of looking to improve education for all children, he parroted failed voucher and privatization schemes that have not improved student learning. Romney’s proposal to take even more money out of public education and funnel it to private schools is absurd at a time when school budgets already are being slashed to the bone across the country. (Emphasis added.)

Weingarten’s characterization of school choice through vouchers as “failed” is outrageous. These subsidies have not only improved education for the students who attend the schools of choice, but study after study has shown that kids who remain in public school also benefit when a voucher system is instituted and schools are forced to compete for students. The Friedman Foundation reports:

Twelve empirical studies have examined academic outcomes for school choice participants using random assignment, the “gold standard” of social science. Of these, 11 find that choice improves student outcomes—six that all students benefit and five that some benefit and some are not affected. One study finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found a negative impact.

Twenty-three empirical studies (including all methods) have examined school choice’s impact on academic outcomes in public schools. Of these, 22 find that choice improves public schools and one finds no visible impact. No empirical study has found that choice harms public schools.

So why is it okay to give vouchers to late teens to attend a private college, but not to 8 and 12 and 16 year olds to enroll in a private elementary, middle or high school? The principle is either sound or it’s not.

Obviously the unions are threatened by vouchers on a K-12 level because that’s where their primary source of funding is. Not nearly as many college instructors and professors are dues paying union members.

But maybe I am wrong and there is another reason for the unions’ inconsistent positions. Am I missing something? If you have an answer, please post in the “comments” area or email me at

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network – a non-partisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues.