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Sibling Squabbles

Four Texas teachers groups offer similar benefits and want the same basic things. So what’s the fuss about?

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After some years, Hatfields and McCoys weren’t sure what exactly caused their lengthy feud.

Not so with the teachers groups of Texas. All four groups trace their tensions back to one vote in 1974 when the Texas State Teachers Association chose to affiliate with the National Education Association.  It’s known in education circles as “the unification.”

Back then, “Texas was pretty provincial,” explains David Anderson, a teacher turned lobbyist. “The teacher groups had always been state-based groups.”

At the time, the Texas State Teachers Association served as an umbrella for more specialized groups, like those for teachers and principals, and it had been representing teachers for almost 100 years. With "the unification," the era of one dominant association was over.

Thirty-five years later, four groups battle for members and stake out territory: pro-union or non-union, teachers-only or teachers and administrators. It means Texas is one of only a few states without one major teachers’ group or union. But since all four groups offer similar benefits and want the basic things — higher salaries and better retirement plans for teachers — what’s all the fuss about?

Much like the feuds of yore, the groups tend to point to history.

“There’s still tension about that vote,” said Larry Comer, spokesman for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, the newest group on the educational block, formed in 1980 out of two smaller associations.

“I know some of the old-timers are still mad,” agrees Jeri Stone, the executive director of Texas Classroom Teachers Association. The group functioned under TCTA until the NEA affiliation drove them to be a stand-alone organization.

As TCTA was leaving the similarly-named TSTA, a new group was gaining power in Corpus Christi. Texas AFT (American Federation of Teachers) fought to dominate urban parts of the state, becoming a powerhouse in Dallas and Houston. It is the only group affiliated with the national AFL-CIO and is the most vocally pro-union.

Since collective bargaining, the primary tool for unions, is outlawed in Texas, TSTA and AFT both support exclusive consultation, where one agent represents teachers in suggesting salaries and benefits. The stance puts them at odds with ATPE in particular, which even has a portion of its website devoted to the potential pitfalls of exclusive consultation.

But when it comes to membership makeup, TSTA and ATPE find themselves allies because they allow administrators to join. It can make them easy targets for competitors.

“We don’t have to please two masters,” Stone says of the Classroom Teachers.

Both AFT and TCTA argue that teachers may not be able to count on full support if their organization also represents their bosses.

Comer at ATPE almost loses it when he hears such things. “Utterly untrue. I cannot tell you how utterly untrue that is,” he says, almost breathless.

TSTA spokesman Richard Kouri is also dismissive.  “I don’t think anyone can come up with an actual example that goes with that rhetoric,” he says.

The groups do come together during the legislative session to fight for policy priorities, positions they generally agree on. They all have political action committees that support legislative allies. But even then, there’s no agreement on tactics.

“It’s our perspective that you don’t call somebody a jerk on Monday in the media and then go to them on Tuesday and ask them to do something for you,” says Classroom Teachers’ Stone in a clear dig at AFT.

AFT, in addition to its union status, often sends outspoken newsletters and press releases to members. Recently it argued the Legislature had “loaded the dice” against giving $500 checks to teacher-retirees. Stone argues that the incendiary language can lead to anger at all the teachers groups, not just AFT. For those not familiar with the acronym jungle, it’s easy to see why.

But AFT’s president, Linda Bridges, says that bluntess is necessary: “I think sometimes if all the groups would be a little more honest about what legislators are doing that’s wrong, we certainly might make the case that somebody else ought to be in that position.”

TCTA says you make more friends with honey. Rep. Rob Eissler, R-The Woodlands, who chairs the Public Education Committee, says he likes all the groups. But TCTA comes to see him the most and because of that “we’re very friendly.”

But even with varying tactics and philosophies, the groups are ultimately fighting for the same goals. Their membership numbers all range between 50 and 70 thousand, except for ATPE with its far less strict membership requirements.  Wouldn't they be more powerful together than as stand alone groups

“If we could all agree and all be part of one group, that would be great,” said AFT’s Bridges.

She should know. Six years ago, Texas AFT tried to merge with TSTA. According to Bridges, complicated logistics issues — who would be included? What about associate memberships? — got in the way.

But she’s quick to offer an upside to the drama:  “You probably have a lot of teachers who would not join one group if there were only one group."

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