Bowman: Most Teachers Are Not Activist

Guest editorial by JC Bowman, Executive Director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee:

Historically, unions have done some remarkable work in the private sector. However, union officials in the early 1950s began to capitalize on the many extraordinary powers and immunities that were created by legislatures and the courts. This allowed union bosses to no longer depend on rank-and-file workers’ input or support. Starting in the late 1950s, public-sector unions started to grow, and private-sector unions began to decrease.

At this same time, union leaders grew more comfortable in the political arena securing and expanding government-granted powers that benefit the union itself, more than just the members. Some state legislatures started pushing back to limit those special privileges and confronted labor laws that benefited unions more than union members themselves.

We have seen policymakers start to limit public sector unions’ control over politicians, politics, and policies. Lawsuits and legal challenges repeatedly occur when policymakers attempt to thwart union objectives. In Janus vs. AFSCME for example, the Supreme Court stated workers cannot be required to pay union fees as a condition of working in public service. When you require someone to join any organization or lose their job, they are being forced to participate, rather than freely agreeing to do so. The focal point is individual freedom.

In the 1970s, Independent Teacher Associations started to emerge across the United States. This was due to the National Education Association moving to a “unified membership system” which required members to join the local, state, and national unions. As part of this structure, a portion of annual union dues that educators pay to their state and local associations goes to the national organization. 
Membership in local, state, and national organizations is mandated, not optional. One state affiliate, the Missouri State Teachers Association (MSTA), opposed sending dues to their national association and withdrew from the union in 1973. The significance of this is that MTSA was a founding member of NEA in the 1850s, to promote public education.

Brenda Lebsack, a California teacher states, “The NEA does not want public education to be neutral ground for developing critical thinkers with an emphasis on academic achievement.” Many educators are frustrated by politics that seemingly rule the union’s every turn. They have options outside of unions now in most states and nationally.  Millions of parents around the country send their children to public schools every day. All kids deserve an unbiased education, and all teachers deserve an option as professionals.

Though not anti-union, Independent Teacher Associations believe that new realities require new thinking, pragmatic solutions, and fresh ideas. Otherwise, we fear that the voices of teachers will not be heard, and the experiences of teachers not considered. This is made even more necessary by the national teacher union’s persistent goal of involvement in politics and social issues.

As educators, we encourage respect for our profession through the practice of the highest standards of personal and professional conduct. Independent associations understand educators are professionals and must be compensated adequately, both with respect and salary commensurate with the training, experience, and importance of their work. Educators should be actively involved in the political process, vote their conscience, and support the issues that they believe in. However, associations should never allow dues monies to be utilized as political campaign contributions or to support social causes unrelated to education. Independent associations provide similar services, benefits, legal and liability, and advocacy, at a fraction of the cost. Mostly because these associations are state-focused and have affordable dues.

The National Education Association spent more than twice as much money on politics-related expenditures than on its membership, an analysis of the union’s filings shows. Teachers’ unions engage in aggressive political partisanship and promote a wide-ranging social agenda on issues unrelated to education, often not reflective of the diverse political views of their broader membership.

Most teachers are not activists. Except for a small number of union activists, the teachers’ union does not influence a teacher’s thoughts about their work in a classroom. The average educator is focused on educating children, not expansive national social issues. The teachers’ union agenda hurts those in the trenches doing the real work in classrooms across our state and nation. They also resent being tied to the political or social agenda outside of education.  As highly intelligent people, educators do not need to be told who to vote for, or what issues to support or oppose. 

The American Federation of Teachers, to their credit, have never shied away from embracing their union label. Most dues-paying teachers in the National Education Association have no idea where their dues monies go or that they are in “the largest labor union in the United States.” 

Education writer Jeremiah Poff wrote: “The political donations by the NEA dwarfed the $48.8 million in political activities and $5.9 million in contributions spent by the nation’s second-largest teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, according to Americans for Fair Treatment. The combined total of the AFT’s political spending was less than 30% of its 2020-2021 expenses, as opposed to the nearly 50% spent by the NEA.” 

Independent Associations prove that it is possible to be a state-focused, professional teachers association, advancing the profession through teacher advocacy and professional development as well as promoting excellence in education for students without being a top-down, centralized, controlled union engaged in militant tactics. We believe that professional educators need to be a member of a professional association that reflects their values and beliefs. You can focus on the reasons you became an educator in the first place. 

JC Bowman, Executive Director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee


JC Bowman is the Executive Director of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee. To schedule an interview please contact or 615-778-0803.