Dysfunctional

It's one thing for unions to be dominated by veteran teachers skeptical of change; it's a problem of a whole different kind when they're dominated by non-teachers and retirees. Yet, in New York City's United Federation of Teachers (UFT) elections last week, just 40 percent of votes were cast by active classroom teachers.

How is that possible? First off, note that fewer than one in three UFT members voted at all. In any election, low turnout gives an exaggerated voice to the most disgruntled and ideological. In union elections, where veterans have more perks and protections at stake, low turnout also concentrates influence among senior members. Might this help explain the UFT's focus on gold-plated health care, pensions, and employee prerogatives, even at the expense of measures to attract talent or address instructional quality?

In last week's UFT election, a total of 18,713 ballots were cast by active elementary-, middle-, and high-school teachers, who voted at rates of 28 percent, 20 percent, and 30 percent respectively. "Functional teachers"--a term the UFT New Teacher Handbook defines to include "attendance teachers; guidance counselors; hearing educational services; laboratory specialists and technicians; nurses and therapists; paraprofessionals; school secretaries; social workers and psychologists; [and] speech teachers"--voted at a rate of 20 percent, casting 10,629 votes. Altogether, as Anna Phillips at GothamSchools reports, active union members voted at about a 24 percent rate.

The union's retirees, meanwhile, voted at a 50 percent rate, yielding 24,978 ballots. A recent rule change diluted the impact of retiree votes so that each counts for about seven-tenths of a regular vote. This adjustment meant that the retirees cast the equivalent of about 18,000 votes--as if they voted at a rate of 35 percent.

So, do the math. Even adjusting for vote dilution, active classroom teachers cast only 40 percent of the votes, and retirees cast the same amount. That doesn't make it easy for reformers focused on improving work conditions and pay for today or tomorrow's teachers to marshal the votes for change.

As one teacher, Martin Haber, commented at GothamSchools.org, "What is the reason that retirees are allowed to vote anyway? I am just a few years away from retiring myself, but would not expect to play an active role in the education scene once I am not an active teacher--even if I will continue to pay dues, fees, etc." Mr. Haber's question is a terrific one.

As one wag notes, "We would never consider giving former New York State residents the right to vote for governor. . . . Why would we give retired teachers the right to have such a strong influence on key educational policies that will never impact them? The fact that retired teachers may have some interest in a pension program is almost incidental."

It's not clear how widespread this phenomenon is, but it sure seems like something we ought to be looking at more carefully.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI.

Photo Credit: iStockphoto/RonTech2000

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