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Voice of Classroom Teachers Stifled... By UFT Election Rules

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 the New York City's United Federation of Teachers (UFT) elections last week, just 40% of votes were cast by active classroom teachers. How is that possible? Read on.

First off, note that less 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 at stake, low turnout also concentrates influence among senior members invested in preserving perks and protections.

What you might find surprising about the UFT election, though, was the degree to which it was dominated by people who aren't teachers. 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, 28% of the 36,907 elementary teachers voted, 20% of the 11,697 middle school teachers voted, and 30% of the 19,931 high school teachers voted. The result: a total of 18,713 ballots were cast by elementary, middle, and high school teachers. (These data are all available at New York City's Education Notes Online).

Those teacher ballots were swamped by votes from retirees and "functional" teachers. What exactly is a "functional teacher," you ask? Good question. The UFT New Teacher Handbook reports that examples 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." There are 45,889 functional teachers. Twenty percent voted, yielding 10,629 ballots.

And the union's 53,560 retirees voted at a 50% rate, yielding 24,978 ballots. Now, a recent rule change diluted the impact of retiree votes so that they count "only" for about 0.7 of a standard vote. This adjustment meant that the retirees cast the equivalent of about 18,000 votes. As Anna Phillips at GothamSchools reports, active union members voted at about a 24% rate, while the 53,000 retired members voted at a rate of about twice that.

So, do the math. From classroom teachers: 18,713 votes. From nurses, lab specialists, school secretaries, and such: 10,629 votes. From retirees (after their votes were diluted): 18,000 votes. So, 60% of the votes counted were not cast by active classroom teachers. 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, Mr. 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 NY 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 retired teachers may have some interest in a pension program is almost incidental." We don't know how widespread this phenomena is, but it sure seems like something we ought to be talking about.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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