Colorado’s Largest Teachers Union Logs Membership Decline

Colorado’s largest teachers union is suffering from a problem it hasn’t dealt with before: member attrition. Over the past two years, more than 3,000 members left the Colorado Education Association according to the documents made public by the organization’s officials. Membership decline at the CEA mirrors that of its parent organization the National Education Association, which has had to cut back on several programs and reduce the staff at its Washington D.C. headquarters due to a shrinking budget.

Although union representatives are blaming the falling membership numbers on shrinking state funding for education, others are saying that the main cause of the decline is increasing member dissatisfaction with the services the union provides in exchange for the high dues. In addition, many are put off by the increasingly partisan political profile of both the CEA and the NEA. The union is one of the largest donors to Colorado’s Democratic politicians, with $2.3 million in donations between 2003 and 2012. It also has a permanent presence among State Capitol lobbyists.

State-by-state membership data disclosed last month to delegates at the union’s national convention and obtained by the blog Education Intelligence Agencyshow 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.

Mike Wetzel, the CEA spokesman, said that the shrinking budgets of the state’s 178 school districts and the resulting loss of some teaching positions were the main cause for the membership decline. Once teachers leave their positions due to a layoff or attrition, they don’t remain members of the CEA. Teachers are also forced to make do with lower salaries due to mandatory furlough days — and higher expenses like increasing medical coverage premiums — and can no longer afford union dues that tend to run between $700 and $800 a year.

“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.”

Wetzel added that the membership slump hasn’t yet made it necessary for the CEA to cut any central office staff or substantially alter the union’s strategy.

CEA’s largest chapter, which represents teachers in Jefferson County Schools, has also experienced a decline in numbers. But the Jefferson Education Association Executive Director Lisa Elliot added that it amounted to no more than 1% of total membership. saying that the loss can be mainly blamed on budget cuts.