In the more than two years since Act 10 became law, an educator group that bills itself as an alternative to teachers unions says hundreds of Wisconsin teachers have signed up.
While it markets itself as being without a political agenda unlike teachers unions, the American Association of Educators gets significant funding from conservative-leaning foundations and often advocates for school choice and publicly rejects what it calls “forced unionism.”
Membership in the Wisconsin chapter of AAE is on pace to reach 1,000 by the end of the school year, spokeswoman Alexandra Freeze said.
Wisconsin Education Association Council membership is down about 30 percent from its pre-Act 10 level of about 98,000.
Freeze would not provide specific membership numbers in Wisconsin. But AAE member Amy Rosno of Eagle said there were about 500 Wisconsin teachers in the association — about 350 more than 2011, when lawmakers approved Gov. Scott Walker’s controversial bill that clamped down on public sector unions. Freeze said about 50 educators in Dane County are members.
“We’ve been around for 20 years,” said Freeze. “We’re not a new group, but relatively new to Wisconsin because teachers now have a choice.”
A WEAC spokeswoman declined to comment. The National Education Association did not respond to a request for comment.
Freeze said the largest membership base is in Racine, and the association draws from all types of school settings — private, virtual and public.
She said she expects membership to increase significantly once the state Supreme Court weighs in on the constitutionality of Act 10, which may be causing uncertainty among the teaching ranks.
“I think we would be even higher if there wasn’t so much confusion,” she said. “Once that comes down, we will see another mass of joining of members.”
While the association does not represent members in collective bargaining or in grievances, AAE members receive
$2 million worth of liability insurance, access to legal counsel at the onset of workplace employment matters, teacher scholarships and grants for classrooms, and access to supplementary insurance, according to its website.
The AAE markets itself to teachers as an alternative to teachers unions that is cheaper, and free from political agendas. Freeze said the group has found a lot of teachers in Wisconsin “have really been searching for a less politically charged alternative” since 2011, when teachers and WEAC were among the leaders of weeks of protest against the collective bargaining legislation.
“And we provide (services) that teachers really do need,” she said. “But at a fraction of a cost because we don’t get into partisan politics.”
AAE charges members about $180 per year. Membership dues in WEAC, for example, are hundreds more per year.
Rosno, an English teacher for online charter school eAchieve Academy, said she left the Education Association of Waukesha after Act 10 because the union’s political activity did not align with her values.
“When I started teaching 17 years ago, I didn’t quite understand what the union was all about. I knew they took my money; I knew they bargained for wages,” she said. After being asked to run for building representative, Rosno said she wanted a change.
“I went to a meeting and I realized they didn’t really share my values and my money wasn’t being spent the way I wanted,” she said. “The union told members who to vote for and the candidates they supported were not the ones I supported. The union was much more political than I ever imagined after attending my first rep meeting. I did not like being told who to vote for or telling others the same.”
Though the association calls itself nonpartisan, the group publicly supports or opposes matters related to education or unionism if a certain percentage of members vote to take a position, according to its website. The central reason for creating the group, the website says, is to reject “forced unionism.”
According to the WEAC website, unions’ advocacy in the political arena ultimately helps teachers in the classroom.
“By nature of your profession, public policy affects just about everything you do. When school funding reductions result in more students in your classroom or cutbacks in essential programs and support services – it affects you and Wisconsin’s students,” a post on WEAC’s website says. “Whether it is school funding reform, health care reform, licensure and professional development, working together to close achievement gaps or organizing for fairer contracts – we are strongest when we stand together.”
Act 10 changes
AAE executive director Gary Beckner has issued several news releases supporting the union restrictions imposed by Act 10. Beckner also weighed in on Walker’s successful recall election saying “Moving forward, we must recognize Wisconsin as the nation’s leader in reversing the archaic practice of forced unionism. Hopefully they will set the standard for the nation as we look ahead to new laws across the country aimed at curbing union power and reforming education.”
The group backs “fully funded charter schools, lifting caps on charter schools and the expansion of virtual and blended education,” and is against “teacher evaluation based solely on student test scores.”
Most of its members believe the Common Core State Standards will have no impact on making the nation’s students more competitive globally, according to member survey results posted on the AAE’s website, but most also believe the standards will provide “more consistency in the quality of education between school districts and between states.”
Funding from conservative groups
The AAE has received funding from groups that also give money to organizations advocating for school choice or known for advocating conservative ideas, like the Right To Work Legal Defense Fund, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, the Heritage Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group of legislators and business executives that promote free-market legislation in states.
The Bradley Foundation from Milwaukee has sent about $645,000 to the AAE since 2008. Rosno said the foundation has given the AAE a grant to create a Wisconsin chapter office. The Walton Foundation also has given the association about $1.5 million since 2009.
Members of those organizations also appear among the AAE Foundation’s board of directors. Secretary and treasurer Becky Norton Dunlop is vice president of the Heritage Foundation, and Alan P. Dye is the legal counsel to ALEC.