Why Teachers are Leaving the Teachers Union

It’s easy to lump individuals together in a group based on one specific characteristic.

How many people have been cut off in traffic by someone with a California license plate, and then blasted those “California drivers”?

Generalizations are especially prevalent in politics. Who’s heard that rural Nevada is conservative, but Las Vegas is liberal? Or that rednecks vote Republican, but Latinos vote Democrat?

Now sometimes generalizations serve an importance purpose — like informing predictions of how many seats Republicans will pick up in the House and Senate in the 2014 elections. That’s an event a few months away that will be heavily influenced by how things stand now.

But in the long term, generalizations ignore the sea changes that occur beneath the surface. These changes occur in small steps and create the large-scale movements that seem to appear out of nowhere.

A change like that is happening right now within Nevada’s teacher union.

The Nevada State Education Association (NSEA) claims it is teachers’ “voice in education.” It doesn’t seem misleading for the teachers union to say it speaks for teachers, except for one very significant fact. The teachers union doesn’t represent two in five teachers in the state.

In the Clark County Education Association and Washoe Education Association, NSEA’s two largest local chapters, just 59.5 percent and 60.5 percent of teachers respectively are union members. These districts also contain over 85 percent of the state’s teachers. In Nevada’s 15 smaller districts, less than 68 percent are union members. In total, just 60.6 percent of Nevada’s teachers belong to the teachers union.

Union membership wasn’t always this low. While Nevada is a right-to-work state and no teacher has to join the union, once a teacher joins, he or she can only leave by submitting written notice between July 1 and 15.

That two-week window is in the middle of summer when school-related activities are far from the minds of most teachers. That’s intentional. Union officials know that many teachers, seeing an opportunity to leave, will.

One catalyst for the recent drop in union membership has been a Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) effort to let teachers know that they can leave the union and when and how to do so. For the last two years, NPRI has run information campaigns letting teachers know about the 15-day period when their personal decision about union membership can be implemented.

The response of teachers has been profound, many thanking NPRI for sharing this information, and many more teachers abandoning the union in droves. In just two years, over 1,400 teachers have left NSEA, reducing its annual union dues income over $1.1 million.

So why are teachers leaving? Here are some of the reasons teachers have given NPRI:

  • Poor customer service. Why would a teacher pay over $700 a year to an organization that won’t return their phone calls or treat them with respect?
  • Save over $700 a year. Teachers recognize the value of money. Many believe they can spend the $700-plus that would have gone to union dues better than union officials. Mortgage payments, vacations and educational supplies for teachers’ own children are some of the uses.
  • Alternative professional educator associations offer better benefits for less. Union members do receive a $1 million liability protection policy, and many teachers want financial protection from potential lawsuits.
  • Teachers have choices, however, and insurance and benefits superior to what NSEA offers are available from national, non-partisan professional-educator associations. For instance, the Association of American Educators provides, for only $180 a year, each member a $2 million liability insurance policy, legal protection and supplementary insurance options.
  • The union is playing politics with teachers’ money. Last year, NSEA made a $1 million donation to support the margin-tax ballot initiative. This year, it’s likely to spend even more. And union bosses brag often about their ability to play politics in Carson City.

Yet, most teachers — whether leaning to the right or the left — aren’t involved in education because they enjoy politics. Many teachers just want to teach, and leave political pursuits to their personal lives, not their professional ones.

Just like their students, every teacher is unique and has unique reasons for wanting to leave their union. What’s undeniable is that many believe leaving the union is best for them.

Victor Joecks is executive vice president of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.

  • Rjschundlr

    I would think, a lot depends on how the teachers and their employers see the role of teachers in the system …. If the teachers see themselves as a production worker, a labor union seems to be what is best for them, if they see themselves as professionals with special skills, and want to be more involved in what happens in their classroom, then I think they would want to be free agents. A lot also depends on how their employer sees them. Are they treated as pegs in a board, or as talented people who can offer something special to the education of the children.

  • Ken Mortland

    I’m unfamiliar with the laws of Nevada, so help me out, please. When education associations negotiate contracts with schools districts, do those contracts apply to all teacher, whether or not they are members of the union?