By Dan Njegomir | Colorado Watchdog
Colorado’s largest and most powerful teacher’s union — a major force in state politics — has lost more than 3,000 members in the past two years, according to the labor organization’s officials and its own data.
The drop-off in membership in the Colorado Education Association mirrors an ongoing decline in membership in the CEA’s parent organization, the National Education Association, which was forced by budget constraints earlier this year to cut programs and pare staff at its Washington, D.C., headquarters.
CEA representatives blame the slide in Colorado membership on school budget cuts in a bad economy. Yet, some union critics say the trend also may reflect underlying teacher dissatisfaction with high union dues and what some say is the union’s increasingly partisan profile.
The Denver-based CEA not only represents most of Colorado’s schoolteachers — including those in the 40-plus school districts that operate under a collective-bargaining agreement — but it also is one of the heavy hitters in Colorado politics. It contributed some $2.3 million to Colorado candidates and political committees from 2003 to 2012, according to followthemoney.org, and it is a perennially powerful lobbying presence at the State Capitol.
State-by-state membership data disclosed last month to delegates at the union’s national convention and obtained by the blog Education Intelligence Agency show the CEA lost 1,512 of its 36,991 active members — or 4.1 percent — between the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years. Meanwhile, a CEA official in Denver acknowledges the state union experienced another loss of approximately 2,000 members during the most recent academic year.
CEA spokesman Mike Wetzel said strained budgets at the state’s 178 school districts were a key factor, resulting in lost teaching positions through attrition and outright layoffs in a few cases. Wetzel also cited pay cuts, freezes and furlough days that have eaten into the average teacher’s household bottom line — and the ability to afford dues that run $700 t0 $800 a year at Denver- and Colorado Springs-area school districts.
“They may have felt in their mind that the membership fee may have been something that they could not afford at that time,” Wetzel said. “It’s been a tough couple of years to be a public education employee.”
He said unlike NEA, CEA, which he called “a pretty lean organization to begin with,” hasn’t had to cut back at its home office.
The CEA chapter representing teachers in the state’s largest district, Jefferson County Schools, also has felt the pinch. Jefferson County Education Association Executive Director Lisa Elliott called her chapter’s drop in membership “very small … maybe 1 percent” during the 2011-12 academic year.
Like Wetzel, Elliott blamed budget cuts.
“Times are tough out there, and if a teacher’s spouse has lost a job, they have to make some tough decisions,” she said.
Some union critics agree that economic circumstances have compelled teachers to drop out rather than pay dues. But they say that could be a sign that a more fundamental reassessment also is under way. Tim Farmer, membership director for the Professional Association of Colorado Educators, said teachers could be starting to wonder what they’re getting for their dues.
“When you look at the fact that teachers aren’t getting raises, they’re not getting increased benefits,” Farmer said, “the return on investment is horrible.”
Farmer says his non-union organization offers teachers liability coverage — one of the long-touted benefits of union membership — for only $180 a year while sparing teachers the CEA’s and NEA’s broader agenda.
It’s that broader agenda that veteran Jefferson County Schools music teacher Michael Alcorn says is driving off some teachers.
“The teacher’s unions have become more and more an arm of the Democratic Party,” Alcorn said. He noted that Jefferson County’s CEA chapter even has taken a stand against retailer Wal-Mart, whose founding family helps fund education-reform efforts around the country.
“They’re seen no longer as advocates for kids or for education reform but rather as advocates for the Democratic Party,” Alcorn said.
Policy analyst Ben DeGrow, of the Independence Institute’s Education Policy Center in Denver, says it could be that the union’s overall political tilt, heavily favoring Democratic candidates in its campaign contributions, translates to education-policy stances that don’t make sense to the latest generation of teachers. (Full disclosure: DeGrow is also a commentary writer for Colorado Watchdog.)
“A lot of the young teachers may be turned off by some of the union’s aggressive positions against education reforms like pay for performance,” DeGrow said.
But the union shows no signs of shifting tactics. Said the CEA’s Wetzel: “Our mission’s the same regardless of how many members we have.”