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Fact Checking the Fact Checkers: Counting Local Teachers Unions in Colorado

We’ve spent an awful lot of time recently debunking (or at least very critically reviewing) stuff. We beat up a bologna study on school choice, poked holes in a school finance study that made some weird assumptions, poked some more holes in even more school finance reports,  and took a very close look at the claim that reform is causing an “exodus” of Colorado teachers. Today, we continue the trend by examining the facts about the number of local teachers unions in Colorado.

As most of you know, there’s a big fight going on in Thompson School District, where four conservative members of the district’s school board have twice shot down junky tentative agreements brought back from the negotiating table. This has led local (and, I suspect, non-local) union backers to take to the area’s biggest newspaper with a variety of vituperative letters to the editor.

Recently, a number of these letters have focused on refuting several board members’ claims that most Colorado school districts do not have recognized teachers unions. One letter in particular stands out by calling the statement a “bald-faced lie.” This letter also asserts that CEA itself states that it has 200 local associations, which is true enough. However, it goes on to argue that this automatically means every one of Colorado’s 178 (the letter incorrectly says 179) school districts must have a recognized teachers union.

Not quite.

Let’s start with the main point: There are 140 districts in Colorado that do not have a teachers union. That works out to about 79 percent of the state’s districts. While there are few “facts” in education policy, this is a cold, hard fact. You can find a full list of unionized districts and read the relevant contracts here.

So why the discrepancy? First of all, though folks tend to use the two words interchangeably, there is difference between a teachers association and a teachers union. That difference is recognition as a bargaining entity in a school district.

You can have a teachers association anywhere you’d like. That’s the beauty of freedom of association. You are free to affiliate with any group you’d like. You are more than welcome form or join an association, have meetings, go to the movies, make t-shirts, and hang out talking association business. You could even make pins and develop fun slogans. No one will stop you.

Yet school districts in Colorado also have a sort of freedom of association. They can decide whether or not they’d like to recognize your association as a bargaining entity. Unless a school district formally recognizes you, you cannot bargain. If you cannot bargain, you have no contract. If you have no contract, you are not a union per se. This distinction explains why there are more teachers associations in Colorado than true, bonafide teachers unions.

The second part of the explanation has to do with how CEA defines “local association.” A lot of folks don’t realize that this term also includes associations covering other, non-teaching workers in schools districts. For instance, transportation and classified staff often have their own associations (check out the numerous contracts for Boulder or Denver on this list). Some of these associations fall under CEA/NEA’s umbrella, as you can clearly see both on the previously linked list and by clicking the individual UniServ regions on CEA’s official coverage map. Thus, CEA can correctly claim that it covers 200 local associations.

Put it all together and it becomes clear that it is possible (indeed, it’s actual) for CEA to have 200 local associations even though most Colorado school districts do not have teachers unions. And while it is true that many of the 140 non-union districts are small—another common argument brought up on this issue—many districts without a teachers union are larger or roughly the same size as Thompson School District. Douglas County, Academy 20, and Harrison all stand out as examples of larger districts with no recognized teachers union. If you don’t want to take my word for it, feel free to call the districts themselves to verify.

There you have it, folks. Far from being a “bald-faced lie,” the assertion that most Colorado districts have no teachers union is 100 percent correct. So much for the old trope that districts simply can’t function without a teachers union, eh?

See you next time!