Teachers seeking union perks without political baggage or expensive dues are turning to non-profit groups like the Christian Educators Association International (CEAI).
The group has been around for more than 50 years, but is enjoying an increase in membership in recent years as politicians and courts crack down on forced unionism. CEAI represents about 8,000 educators across the country, providing them many of the services teachers have traditionally received from labor giants like the NEA and the AFT.
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"Teachers are concerned with the threat of lawsuits and are also concerned about legal representation if they are treated unfairly by their district. We provide both to them," CEAI President Finn Laursen said. "Once we started offering liability insurance and legal representation we have seen explosive growth."
Legal representation and liability insurance are two of the biggest reasons that teachers will remain in unions even if they disagree with other aspects of their missions, according to Rebecca Friedrichs, a CEAI member who is challenging forced unionism in California school districts.
"The major stumbling block is liability insurance. I know teachers who have been frustrated for years with the union, but can’t leave because you’d be crazy to go in a classroom without it," she said. "Luckily, we have third party organizations that are popping up to help teachers."
CEAI offers these services and protections to members at a fraction of the cost of traditional teachers unions. The average CEAI member pays a little more than $100 per year for these protections, compared to annual dues payments of about $500 that a public school teacher will shell out for local, state, and national union dues. That’s because the non-profit employees just 11 people at a cost of about $350,000, according to its 2012 tax filings. The NEA, by contrast, spent $90 million in 2013 on overhead and union administration costs—about 50 percent more than it spent on benefits that year. The AFT spent more on limo service for union leaders in 2013 than Laursen earned from leading the CEAI in the same year.
"We operate on a tight budget and embrace the vision that this is not an organization that will have access to endless dollars. We have a powerful group of volunteers who are here to serve," Laursen said. "The union no longer represents the interests of their workers. That wasn't the case early on, but that's become the case today."
Laursen, like many of the teachers he represents, is a former union member and has served in every level of the American education system. He taught high school English and served as a school counselor before rising to become a principal. He was a superintendent for 11 years before coming over to work with the CEAI. He noticed a common pattern in teacher representation on both ends of the bargaining table that led him to lose faith in unions.
"Never once did our union rep come say ‘this is good for children' or ‘this will be better for education.' Union reps often focus on saving jobs for the less-than-adequate. It's not good for education and it's not good for children," he said.
CEAI may be providing teachers with the services they traditionally find in labor unions, but they should not expect the sense of entitlement that groups like NEA and AFT foster among their members. Laursen said that education is a two-way street and while he will defend his members from management abuse, teachers are expected to take responsibility for their own deficiencies.
"When our members are being challenged we sit them down and talk about what they can do to improve," Laursen said. "We don't just judge the teacher or the school district right away. We're here to help them work through their problems and find a godly solution that improves education."
CEAI’s membership has grown about 6 percent since 2012 and its revenues increased by 40 percent from 2008 to 2012, as teachers upgraded to full time membership. The expansion can be attributed to a number of public sector labor reforms that have occurred at the state level, especially Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s push to end forced dues collection in Wisconsin.
"Many Christian teachers in public schools are concerned with political positions unions take. Their dues money is going to support politics that violate their values," Laursen said. "Reforms will have a phenomenal impact because many feel trapped in teachers union. Teachers are fed up and frustrated when they are held captive and don't have a choice."
The CEAI’s biggest challenge is raising awareness among school systems. New teachers are often ignorant of what they are signing up for, as well as the federal labor protections that they are entitled to, according to Laursen.
"Many teachers are given a union document on their first day and told they can't work if they don't sign it," he said.
Labor watchdogs said that school districts should do a better job of informing new hires of alternatives. Rick Berman, executive director of the Center for Union Facts, said that the growth of non-profit groups like the CEAI and the Association of American Educators, another alternative, will help chip away at the monopolies that teachers unions have.
"Every teacher should take a look at what their options are to get out," Berman said. "There’s no reason that union has to go on forever in terms of representing the interests of public employees."