The Conversation

Are Teachers Unions Doomed?

With revenue and membership dropping, losses in court cases, all on top of internal dissension and even some splintering, the nation's two largest education unions, the National education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, are struggling to map out a future, let alone a politically important one.

Responding to all these challenges has proved difficult, analysts say, because both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are divided internally. There’s a faction urging conciliation and compromise. Another faction pushes confrontation. There’s even a militant splinter group, the Badass Teachers Association. 

Whatever one thinks of them, it's increasingly clear that they're political opponents have effectively branded them as part of the problem, not the solution. In some cases, their own policies made that easy to do.

“People increasingly view teachers unions as a problem, or the problem,” David Menefee-Libey, a politics professor at Pomona College who studies education politics. That’s a striking shift, he said, because “for decades the unions were viewed as the most likely to contribute to the improvement of public education.” 

Winter Hall, the mother of a 7-year-old in a Los Angeles public school, echoed that sentiment.

“Whenever there are teachers unions, it always comes off like the unions serve themselves — like it’s not about the education of the children,” she said.

That, as some anticipate set backs for the unions to continue in the courts.

Teachers unions still have too much money and too many members to be counted out. Collectively, they represent 3.8 million workers and retirees. They bring in more than $2 billion a year.

Yet the share of Americans who see teachers unions as a negative influence on public schools shot up to 43 percent last year, up from 31 percent in 2009, according to national polling conducted by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and the journal Education Next. By contrast, 32 percent see unions as a positive force, up from 28 percent in 2009, the poll found.

With the court system rendering them less influential and the popularity in genuine decline, for now, no one in union management seems to have a wisely accepted, clear and positive vision for the future.


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