AUGUSTA — The Maine Education Association plays a large role in discussions of state education policy, but a new report on teacher union strength puts the MEA in the middle of the pack nationally.
In an evaluation of the state-level unions in the 50 states and the District of Columbia, MEA is No. 22, according to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now. Both groups advocate policies that teacher unions typically oppose, such as school choice.
According to the report, teacher unions have the most power in historically union-friendly states in the Northeast, the Midwest and on the West Coast. They are weakest in the South.
Amber Winkler, one of the report’s authors, said previous assessments of teacher union strength have looked at membership numbers, whether collective bargaining is mandatory and the scope of issues subject to bargaining.
The Fordham study also examined campaign contributions, alignment of state policies with union priorities and perceived influence, as measured through a survey of other stakeholders who shape education policy.
Maine rated high on union membership and resources, state laws that protect teachers and perceived influence of MEA.
“I think that’s because we have members who are involved, and the community sees them at school board meetings and sees them at different community activities, being out as teachers,” MEA President Lois Kilby-Chesly said.
Winkler said there’s a sense that union influence is waning overall. Survey respondents said that new education policies adopted by legislatures in 2011 were less in line with union priorities than in the previous three years.
“Reading about what’s happening on the ground, I think we’re seeing a lot more conflict,” Winkler said.
The national shift is reflected in Maine, where the 125th Legislature adopted laws allowing charter schools, reducing retirees’ benefits and requiring the MEA Benefits Trust to release health insurance claims data.
Maine ranked seventh in the Fordham report for alignment of state policies with typical union priorities, but researchers gathered the information in March, before the passage of a law requiring teacher and principal evaluations to include student learning data. The MEA opposed the bill because of a lack of due process protections.
Winkler said that if the new law were incorporated into the analysis, Maine would have ranked a couple of spots lower because the law allows for performance pay and dismissal of ineffective teachers.
In spite of some defeats for MEA, the union and its allies were able to block some of Gov. Paul LePage’s education initiatives, including a bill to create statewide open enrollment. LePage has been critical of MEA, saying the union does not put teachers’ development or student achievement first.
“When you have an entity such as MEA standing up and objecting to certain policies, they have a strong voice, and we do not think that their priorities are where they need to be,” LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett said.
About 77 percent of teachers in Maine are union members, putting the state at 25th for unionization rate. Maine is also 25th for the percentage of education expenditures that go to teacher salaries and benefits — 54 percent.
MEA is tied for No. 44 for involvement in politics, which is largely based on campaign donations. The union accounted for 0.02 percent of donations to candidates and 1.1 percent of donations to political parties in the last decade, according to the report.
The researchers did not measure lobbying or advocacy expenditures. MEA spent $61,975 on lobbying the Legislature and executive branch in 2011 and 2012, and Kilby-Chesly said the union gets much of its strength from the members it can mobilize when important issues arise.
“We have a pretty big base of people who are willing to step up and speak out when the time comes,” she said. “We have retirees, we have a lot of our support staff who are willing to step up and speak out when they need to.”
That base may contribute to MEA’s reputation for wielding influence, an area where Maine tied for 11th in the rankings.
The perceived influence ratings were based on surveys of state board of education members, staff in governor’s offices and education departments, legislators and advocacy groups. While the survey responses were subjective, Winkler said the results lined up with objective data on other indicators.
The authors of the report made observations about some trends, including the fact that mandatory bargaining “tilts the playing field” toward strong unions, but they stopped short of judgments about whether that is positive or negative. They also did not make recommendations.
“The one thing that we don’t do is say this is better or worse for kids on the ground,” Winkler said. “We purposely avoided doing that because we thought that you’ve got to have a pretty strong theory about what makes a good union or a bad union.”
Susan McMillan — 621-5645