Gary Brennan has been busy the past few months.
The president of the Frederick County Teachers Association has had his hands full talking to state lawmakers about the Common Core State Standards, the controversial education reform that’s frustrated parents, teachers and students.
It’s also an election year, and Brennan – who represents about 2,800 teachers in Frederick County – wants to make sure he is doing all he can to help elect candidates who support his union’s legislative priorities.
“It’s not just the budget and pension issues this year,” Brennan said. “This year, it’s about what’s going on inside our classrooms.”
Though national trends indicate membership in teachers unions has dipped, that’s not the case in Maryland. In 2009, 71,000 teachers belonged to the Maryland State Education Association (MSEA). Five years later, it’s about 73,000.
“Unions do remain a powerful force,” said Ray Lorion, the dean of education at Towson University. “The knock against them is they’re focused more on the teachers than the students.”
Representatives of the MSEA testified on 109 bills during the 2014 legislative session, and Common Core was undoubtedly the biggest issue the union tackled. About a dozen Common Core-related bills were introduced at the beginning of the session.
Common Core, which sets national benchmarks in language arts and math for students in kindergarten through 12th grade, raised concerns about how the standards are being implemented and changes to standardized tests and teacher evaluations.
The MSEA pushed for the passage of several bills, including one that delays when standardized tests scores count toward teacher evaluations, one that establishes a work group dedicated to making implementation of Common Core smoother and another that creates an oversight process for waivers from federal education laws.
The bills passed the House and the Senate, and are expected to be signed into law by Gov. Martin O’Malley.
Conveying a message
The standards, adopted in Maryland four years ago, were fully rolled out this school year. Many teachers thought that was way too fast, said Lorion, who polled thousands of educators on the subject as part of a twice-yearly survey.
“Individual teachers cannot make that message clear the way unions can,” Lorion said.
Adam Mendelson, spokesman for the MSEA, said around 600 to 700 members convene yearly to vote on what legislative priorities they want to pursue.
“Then that message is what we take to Annapolis,” he said.
Both Brennan, of Frederick County, and Mendelson said they have heard anecdotally that Common Core could push stressed out teachers to flee the profession.
Mendelson said it’s difficult to know for sure until the end of the school year, when teachers decide to quit or stay on for another year.
“It’s hard to quantify it, but I think it is a growing area of concern for teachers,” he said. “That’s one reason it was a big priority for us to get these Common Core bills passed.”
Paul Lemle, president of the Howard County Education Association for the last three years, became active about five or six years ago after following the politics that influence education.
As leader of the association – which also represents administrative staff, pupil personnel workers and other school workers – one of Lemle’s duties is to keep members up to date on state and local legislation that affects them, and getting them involved.
That could mean bringing teachers down to the State House “from the classroom with chalk on their hands,” or starting email and letter-writing campaigns.
“Wouldn’t you ask doctors what is the best thing for medicine?” Lemle said.
Being a member of a large association lends credence to the cause, he said, adding politicians also know such organizations represent a large chunk of votes.
Nationally, teacher unions funnel millions into political campaigns.
Last year, the National Education Association pumped $6.8 million to federal candidates, parties and outside groups, according to OpenSecrets.org, which tracks campaign contributions. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) donated $1.2 million.
Sen. Ed Reilly, R-Crofton, a member of the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said he felt union leaders stayed largely in the background throughout the Common Core debate—though the rank and file carried their message loud and clear.
Four of the 11 members of the committee are former teachers, Reilly said, and they tend to have the strongest ties to the teacher unions.
“They have an influence in the process through individual committee members,” he said.
More teachers in Maryland
The Howard County Education Association
has 5,500 members, and is growing at a rate of between 0.5 to 1 percent a year, Lemle said.
That mirrors the rest of the state, though it’s a different story elsewhere.
The NEA, the country’s largest teacher union, has seen membership fall by about 7 percent since 2009, according to media reports.
Mendelson said many school districts across the nation left vacant positions open during the recession, then never filled them.
Mass teacher layoffs in California and Nevada, and blows to collective bargaining in other states, didn’t help.
“In Maryland, that hasn’t been the case,” Mendelson said. “Maryland has always been very good at funding its schools, so I think we were able to recover better from the recession.”
The AFT has seen a modest decline in teacher membership since 2007, said Randi Weingarten, the group’s president.
At the same time, more young teachers are joining the profession. In 2008, 12 percent of the AFT’s members were under 30, Weingarten said. By 2011, it was 16 percent – and she expects that number to keep rising.
The union’s influence could be seen in the early stages of Common Core.
Many rank-and-file teachers were involved in Common Core’s initial development, and have been vocal about problems with its implementation, Weingarten said.
The union last year called for changes to the standardized tests attached to Common Core, and has raised questions about whether instructors are adequately prepared to teach to the standards.
That action led U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to allow some waivers to federal education requirements.
“The AFT has always been a strong supporter of the standards, as long as they are implemented properly,” Weingarten said.