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Nation's Largest Teachers' Union Sees Slight Upswing in Membership

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The National Education Association projected a steep membership decline in the wake of an adverse Supreme Court ruling—but the losses were not as bad as anticipated. 

The nation's largest teachers' union quietly posted its proposed 2019-20 strategic plan and budget on a page for delegates. NEA officials declined to comment until the delegates have been briefed on the proposed budget, which will happen next week. The delegates will then vote on whether to ratify the budget when they meet in Houston July 4-7.

Observers, and union officials themselves, predicted that teachers' unions would see an exodus of members after the Supreme Court ruled last June that public-sector unions could not charge agency, or fair-share, fees to employees who chose not to join the union. Oftentimes, teachers and other workers kicked in the extra dollars for full membership because they were already paying the agency fees, and it didn't cost much more to join. 

The NEA had projected a more than 10 percent membership decline from 2018 to 2020. In response, it cut $50 million from its two-year budget.

But the latest figures show that the projected losses did not entirely realize. The NEA recorded about 2.29 million full-time equivalent members (a number that includes teachers, education support professionals, and retirees) for the upcoming budget year of 2019-20. The union had projected dipping down to 2.11 million members. 

(In total, the NEA has about 3 million members, but many of those are part-time teachers. For the purposes of the budget, NEA just counts full-time equivalents.) 

Still, the union has seen a drop in full-time equivalent members since the Supreme Court's decision. For the 2017-18 budget year, the NEA recorded about 2.45 million members—a number that included the 31,000 agency-fee payers.

The membership count has not rebounded fully since then. In the union's two-year budget released soon after the Supreme Court ruling, NEA projected a membership count of 2.26 million full-time equivalent members in the 2018-19 budget year—a single-year drop of nearly 8 percent. That number did not change in the new budget. 

Why Did Membership Rebound? 

Union officials had vowed to meet with individual teachers face-to-face to convince them to stay in (or rejoin) the union. Some states, like Maryland and California, had even passed laws that require new teachers to meet with a union representative. Also, the groundswell of teacher activism across the country over the past year might have attracted more members, too—some unions in states that saw teacher strikes or walkouts said they experienced membership growth afterwards. 

"As a result of good planning, prudent budgeting, and successful organizing, the committee can recommend the restoration of previously anticipated cuts and proposes additional investments in areas of growth and strength for year two of the two-year budget cycle," the report says. 

The NEA recorded $350.4 million in total revenue in 2019-20—more than the projected $316.6 million, but still less than the 2017-18 total of $366.7 million.

The union's four financial objectives are to "expand opportunities for professional excellence, grow the commitments to social and racial justice, strengthen educator voice, and deepen relationships with early career teachers."

The new budget also dedicates more money than anticipated to invest in political campaigns in advance of the 2020 election. (Presidential candidates are currently vying for the NEA's endorsement—in fact, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García will moderate a forum with several candidates at the Representative Assembly in Houston. Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Kamala Harris are among the candidates confirmed to attend.) 

The NEA's modified budget also put more money into defending against litigation attacking the NEA and its members. Teachers' unions across the country are facing more than a dozen legal challenges from right-leaning sources. 

What Are the State Membership Numbers?

In the NEA's latest financial report, the union released its membership numbers by state for the years 2016-17 and 2017-18. It's important to note that these numbers do not reflect the aftermath of the Supreme Court ruling. But it's interesting to see how certain states, like California and New York, are off-setting the membership losses in states that had passed anti-union legislation, like Michigan.

Image of the NEA's 2018 representative assembly, courtesy of Scott Iskowitz/National Education Association

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