NEA Membership Decline Heralds Loss of Power and Influence

As membership declines, states continue to press forward with policies long opposed by teaching unions, raising questions about the union’s political influence.

Things are looking grim for teachers unions. The National Education Association (NEA) membership has declined by more than 100,000 since 2010, and the union’s own projections indicate that within two more years it could have lost a total of 308,000 full-time teachers and other workers. This would represent a 16% drop in membership from 2010.

It’s not simply member numbers at stake, but the dues each member provides. If projections are correct, then the NEA budget will decline 18% and they’ll have $65 million less to work with.

Greg Toppo of USA Today reports that the NEA explains the unprecedented membership losses on a combination of long-term factors such as the expansion of online learning and changing teacher demographics. While they acknowledge things are unlikely to ever return to the way they were, the NEA remains unbowed.

“We may be a little smaller, but we won’t be weaker — we’ll be stronger,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said. He said teachers “have been energized” by lawmakers’ bids in some states to make it harder to join a public-sector union.

The reality may be a little different than Van Roekel would like to admit. In election years the Democratic candidate has traditionally courted the NEA’s annual meeting which started July 2 in Washington D.C. With 2.2 million members they were a politically powerful force. The decline in influence is already having an effect however, as President Obama has skipped the NEA assembly and instead Vice President Biden will address the teacher’s union.

“Obviously in Democratic politics, if they have a half-million fewer members at some point and a lot fewer dollars, there’s absolutely a point when they’re going to matter less than they do today — and that’s going to hurt them,” said Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute, a non-partisan think tank.

The declining influence of the NEA can also be seen clearly on the ground. The NEA has long opposed policies such as private school vouchers but in many states these ideas are gaining a lot of political traction.

Losing that many members is “the kind of shift in the landscape that can force union leaders to shift their stance on issues,” Hess said.

Demographic changes among teachers can be seen clearly in research by Richard Ingersoll from the University of Pennsylvania. This shows that in 1988 the typical (modal) teacher had 15 years of experience, but by 2008 this had declined to one year. Young, inexperienced teachers have proven much less likely to join a union than career teachers.

Even with the losses, teachers still value their unions, research shows. In findings due next week from Education Sector, a Washington think tank, 81% of K-12 teachers surveyed believe that without a union, teachers “would be vulnerable to school politics or administrators who abuse their power.”

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