A New Voice Speaking for America’s Educators

THE ASSOCIATION OF AMERICAN EDUCATORS (AAE) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan national teachers association that offers many of the same benefits that the teacher unions provide but at a fraction of the cost of belonging to a union, and without the liberal politics. In what may be the best-kept secret in America, over 250,000 teachers in 17 states have joined independent teacher associations to obtain their liability insurance, which is the biggest reason teachers feel they need to join the unions. In Georgia, Missouri, and Texas, these independent associations have grown larger than the NEA or AFT affiliates in those states.

The AAE is working to launch new independent state teacher associations and to mobilize existing ones into a force that can blunt the harmful influence of the unions. We believe that unless national policy leaders and education reformers hear from the hundreds of thousands of unrepresented teachers across America, the education reform movement, and ultimately our children and nation, will suffer the consequences.

AAE and the independents are different from the teachers unions in many ways. Unlike union leaders, we believe that teachers’, and teacher associations’, first duty is to the children, not to union interests. We believe that education means teaching character as well as knowledge and intellect. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom; nothing is more important for public wealth than to form and train up youth in wisdom and virtue.”

The AAE has developed several character education programs that are being used in public schools around the country. Unlike the unions, we are also committed to schools that are free from strikes and any other work stoppage tactics or coercive threats. Membership in our associations is voluntary. The AAE does not contribute any of our members’ dues to political candidates or parties. Such contributions by the teacher unions have been as high as 50 percent of union dues in some states.

Unlike the NEA and AFT, the AAE seeks more involvement from parents and local communities rather than from the federal government. The schools and their administration, instructional services, and curriculum, should be controlled by and accountable to the parents and taxpayers of the local communities they serve. Furthermore, unlike the unions, we encourage innovations in public education that could lead to real reform, including non-traditional school options such as charter schools; alternative teacher certification; and the use of volunteers, non-union employees, and qualified private entities to help operate our schools and save local tax dollars.

The NEA continually lobbies for more federal funding because they say public education is in a financial crisis. The AAE believes we are at a financial crossroads, not crisis. Do we need to repair our eroding school buildings, buy more books and computers, and redesign and improve teacher compensation in order to attract and keep the best teachers? Of course we do. However, until there are systemic changes, most education dollars will never get to where they can do the most good: the classrooms of America.

AAE’s rapid membership growth is confirmation that many teachers are looking for a professional alternative to the union mentality. Part of the reason is that we take our directions from practicing educators who have been recognized for their vision and excellence. AAE board members include such excellent teachers as Guy Doud, 1987 National Teacher of the Year, Tom Fleming, 1992 National Teacher of the Year, and Tracey Bailey, 1993 National Teacher of the Year.

Our growth has not gone unnoticed by the unions. In fact, the NEA labeled us “a stalking horse for the right wing groups” and “an enemy of public education.” To which Tracy Bailey says, “No wonder the NEA is worried, the AAE represents that which is so sorely needed-professionalism and a focus on children first. This stands in stark contrast to the current environment of organizations like the NEA protecting the status quo and using teachers’ dues to lobby for controversial social issues!”

There is ample evidence (including the unions’ own internal surveys) that hundreds of thousands of union members are fed up with their leadership telling them what to think and how to vote. Teachers are beginning to ask some fundamental questions, such as: Has public education improved since the NEA transformed itself from a professional association into an organized labor union in the mid 70s? Has the connection with unionism improved the reputation of teachers as professionals? Have the unions really helped us get the pay we deserve? A recent internal NEA survey revealed that many NEA members would prefer to belong to a professional association rather than to an old-style industrial labor union. This survey revealed other ways NEA leadership is out of touch with its membership. For example, younger NEA members favor the idea of merit pay, which NEA leaders have fought against for years.

We are pleased with the response to the AAE thus far. However, we know our fight has just begun. At the NEA’s summer convention a number of state affiliates received additional funds to fight off the growth of independent groups. We need to get the word out about the AAE and independent teacher associations. Teachers need to know they have a choice!

Mr. Beckner is a founder of and the Executive Director of the Association of American Educators.