Boycott Raises Questions About Teachers' Priorities

The National Education Association (search), the nation's largest professional employee union, claims to believe “every child in America, regardless of family income or place of residence, deserves a quality education.”

The organization goes so far as to state on its website that: “In pursuing its mission, NEA has determined that it will focus the energy and resources of its 2.7 million members on improving the quality of teaching, increasing student achievement and making schools safer, better places to learn.”

The words are noble, but the teachers’ union actions often are not. The NEA consistently places its political priorities over the actual needs of children and serves as a barrier to true education reform. While it claims to be all about the children, great public schools and great teachers, it downplays that it is also for great political power. Unfortunately, the union’s politicking often trumps the actual needs of the children.

The most recent example comes from Washington State. The NEA’s state affiliate, the Washington Education Association (search), administers a charitable program designed to meet the basic needs of disadvantaged children. The WEA Children’s Fund (search) earmarks $50,000 a year for needy students. Teachers can purchase items such as warm coats, new shoes and basic school supplies and submit receipts to the Fund for reimbursement.

The Fund allows teachers to meet the everyday needs of children that would otherwise hinder their learning ability. This is a noble project, but once again, the teachers’ union is allowing its own politics to stand in the way.

The WEA recently decided that, despite the direct benefit to children, the Children’s Fund will now refuse to reimburse teachers for some of their purchases simply because “[a] great many of the receipts members submit for reimbursement are for purchases from Wal-Mart.”

What makes the WEA think that hurting Wal-Mart (search) is more important than meeting the needs of children? The answer is clear: Wal-Mart has successfully resisted unionization of its employees, becoming organized labor's common enemy. For the WEA, penalizing Wal-Mart's anti-union policies is more important than allowing its members to help their needy students.

To understand this change, one must examine the true nature of the teachers union's constant focus on achieving political power and money.

The union movement as a whole is in a bind. The number of union households is on a 30-year decline. Contrary to common sense, which would dictate an emphasis on organizing, union officials are convinced that the answer is spending record amounts on political activity. This inevitably leads to fault lines developing between union officials and rank-and-file members.

The NEA is, once again, the best example of this. NEA president Reg Weaver has said that the nation’s teachers are evenly divided between political parties: one-third Democrat, one-third Republican, and one-third Independent. Yet over the last election cycle, the NEA spent millions in member dues engaging in political party-like activities primarily on behalf of Democrat candidates. It also used member dues to tell those same members how to vote. In the end, the union failed in its number one goal to win back the White House. Now teachers are asking tough questions that union officials will have to answer.

Teachers are wondering why an increasing part of their hard earned money is going for overpriced services they may never see. They are wondering why the dues they are forced to pay are used to fund initiative and media campaigns with which they may not agree.

Rather than addressing these internal divisions, organized labor leaders are diverting its members’ attention by moving in solidarity against business opponents. Wal-Mart is an especially attractive target because unions have been unsuccessful in organizing the retailer’s employees. This is why, in the distorted reality of union officials, the WEA is justified in going after Wal-Mart, even at the expense of teachers and needy children.

Of course, it is the Washington Education Association’s prerogative to decide how to disburse the Children’s Fund. But allowing a political battle to trump charitable efforts of teachers is evidence that the union’s true priority is to protect its monopoly over education, regardless of the impacts on students.

The same teachers who purchase the coats, shoes and school supplies for needy children from Wal-Mart, at least in part, also finance the Children’s Fund with their mandatory membership dues. Yet the WEA dictates how teachers are to spend what they could rightly call their own charitable gifts. When teachers don’t fall into line, the WEA penalizes them.

When teachers see a need and want to extend their hearts to children who come into class shivering, why should they be restricted in meeting that need by the NEA or any of its affiliate’s self-serving political agenda? If the WEA claims that teachers are underpaid, why is it penalizing a teacher for trying to stretch her meager dollar by buying a coat at Wal-Mart for $13.88 rather than elsewhere for $24.99? Rather than vilifying teachers’ use of money, the WEA should condone their generous spirit. After all, it’s about the children, right?

Ryan Bedford is a legal research analyst for the Evergreen Freedom Foundation, a non-partisan, public policy watchdog organization, focused on advancing individual liberty, a free-market economy, and limited and responsible government.