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Antonucci Reminds Us to Be Skeptical of Union Leaders’ Pleas to Change

From the spooky to the smile-inducing to the skeptical, welcome to Eddie’s roller coaster world of education policy commentary. Skeptical, you say? What am I talking about?

The article of the week for you to read comes from Education Next and America’s most well-informed and honest observer of all things related to the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, Mr. Mike Antonucci. He lays out the big story about teachers unions and the war within. Bringing nearly two decades of experience watching union leadership operate, he starts the article with this back-to-the-future comparison:

From the NEA’s highest office, the rhetoric of 2014 looks a lot like the rhetoric of 1997. Yet the union is no closer to being a real “agent of change” now than it was then. What you’re seeing, Antonucci explains, is the “external message,” what’s meant for all of us outside the union to hear. Very different from the “internal message” to members and activists, which in recent days has created a real problem:

In the good old days, the two audiences were always separate. But in today’s world, where everyone with a phone or Internet access can act as a reporter, the two messages can overlap, causing confusion and contradiction.

Yet by all appearances, the union continues to waffle on deciding what it’s going to be. Antonucci notes how the last five years have been especially rough on NEA and AFT. Economic recession combined with reform-minded governors concerned about the cost of government and quality of schools has hit their membership numbers and bottom lines. Federal stimulus dollars could only delay the inevitable for a brief while.

A few weeks ago I asked if time was on the NEA’s side. The rate of American public school teachers who belong to the union recently dipped below 50 percent. In Colorado, at last check, the trend line is similar, though union members still make up the majority.

The most interesting piece of the Education Next column is the highly informed conclusion about what happens to the unions going forward. Year after year, some express the hope that the NEA and AFT will evolve from being primarily about “the protection of teachers in the workplace and of union prerogatives everywhere” to finally fulfilling that call to be agents of positive reform in schools and the teaching profession.

Antonucci isn’t buying it, though. He doesn’t see the massive but shrinking organizations effectively adapting from their “adherence to a mission designed for the world of the 1960s.” Rather, he sees them going the way of a prominent private sector union that once was a dominant and respected force, but now has lost most influence and power:

Even if their current difficulties continue, the NEA and the AFT will never disappear. But their days of dominating the education environment are on the wane. In the future, we will look upon them as we now do the Teamsters, as remnants of an earlier age.

See what I mean about skepticism? It’s hard for a young person like me not to put on my rose-colored glasses and be hopeful. But in this case, I am giving credence to the educated opinions of my elders.