Maine's education policy is aligned with interests of teachers union


Maine’s education policies are more in line with traditional union interests than nearly every other state, according to a new report, “How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions? A State-By-State Comparison.”

The Maine Education Association is ranked 7th nationally for its influence over state policies, based on the study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute for Advancing Education Excellence in Washington, D.C.

“At the time we calculated our data, Maine policies were more aligned with traditional union interests than in nearly every other state,” the report states. “As recently as March 2012, the state did not support performance pay, there were no articulated consequences for unsatisfactory teacher evaluations and neither teacher evaluations nor teacher tenure decisions needed to take student achievement into account.

“The state teacher unions in Maine see somewhat substantial resources: 77.1 percent of Maine teachers are union members, the 25th-highest unionization rate of 51 jurisdictions,” according to the report. “The state-level NEA and AFT affiliates generate annual revenue of $621 per teacher in the state (11th nationally). In addition, teachers see considerable resources dedicated to K–12 education: The state ranks 7th in annual per-pupil spending ($14,591), and 54 percent of education expenditures go to teacher salaries and benefits (25th nationally).”

The Maine Education Association is ranked 11th nationally for its perceived influence. Educators report that their teacher unions are strong, but perhaps not as strong as they used to be. “Survey respondents rank teacher unions, along with the state association of school administrators, as the most influential entity in shaping education policy,” the report states.

“They report that the unions are highly effective in fending off education proposals with which they disagree and (in a time of budgetary constraint) are successful in protecting dollars for education. However, respondents also indicate that policies proposed by the governor and enacted in the latest legislative session were not in line with teacher union priorities.”

One of 32 states that require collective bargaining, Maine’s laws permit a wider scope of bargaining than most. Of the 21 items examined, four must be bargained in Maine: wages; hours; terms and conditions of employment; and grievance procedures. Bargaining over the remaining 17 items is implicitly permitted, since they are not addressed by state law.

Teacher strikes are prohibited. But the MEA is allowed to automatically deduct union fees from the wages of non-member teachers, which is reflected in the MEA’s substantial resources.

The report shows that MEA has not shown much of a financial presence during elections. While the union’s donations amounted to a mere 0.02 percent of total contributions to candidates for state office, the MEA gave comparatively more to state political parties (1.1 percent of donations to parties came from unions; 23rd nationally). Raising Maine’s ranking in this area are its delegates to the Democratic and Republican conventions: 11.1 percent were identified as teacher union members (33rd nationally).

However, the report notes that in Maine, the policy environment is rapidly changing. In April 2012 the state approved a student-achievement-based evaluation system, which has not yet been implemented. It also decreased the pre-tenure probationary period from three to two years, although the change occurred after the Fordham Institute concluded its calculations.

“While unions typically oppose the expansion of charter schools, the state made them legal in 2011,” the study states. “Still, that legislation attends to some union interests. Though charters are automatically exempt from many state laws and district regulations, they must follow state teacher certification requirements and cannot apply for exemptions. Similarly, while charters are exempted from district-union contracts, employees at a school may opt to bargain collectively.”

While the LePage administration is pushing for more education reforms, the MEA may soon take its gloves off, according to the report.

Despite the shift in Maine politics in 2010 that gave Republicans control of both houses and the governorship, the Maine Education Association (MEA) has seen a number of potentially devastating bills land far from the mark.

The union blocked Governor Paul LePage’s proposal to end collective bargaining for public employees and his push for right-to-work laws.

Budget cuts did land a jab, however: the state cut cost-of-living adjustments for the pensions of retired teachers (as of August 2012, a lawsuit supported by the MEA is pending) and the union ultimately couldn’t prevent a measure that allows local school districts to seek less expensive health plans for current employees.

Legislators also increased the pre-tenure probationary period for teachers from two years to three, the national norm, and passed a bill legalizing charter schools (Maine previously had no such thing).

Yet the law limits the number of charters and their enrollment, and charter teachers are allowed to bargain collectively—alleviating a major point of conflict between charter supporters and unions.

So far, 2012 is shaping up to be an equally mixed bag for the MEA. Sponsored by Governor LePage in anticipation of the state’s NCLB waiver request, LD 1858 required that teachers be evaluated on student learning (among other criteria), and after two years of ineffective ratings teachers would be eligible for dismissal. The union objected, not to the use of student data (a requirement for the waiver) but to evaluations that could potentially be based entirely on standardized test scores and developed without teacher input.

With amendments that ensured due process for fired teachers and left the details of data use to the discretion of the districts and their local unions, the bill passed in April 2012.

Despite the compromise, Governor LePage seems set on limiting or eliminating collective bargaining for public employees, and the MEA may soon see the gloves come completely off.

The report was produced by the Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now. Authors were Amber M. Winkler, Ph.D.Janie ScullDara Zeehandelaar, Ph.D. with a foreword by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli.


About Steve Robinson

Steve Robinson is the former editor of The Maine Wire and currently the executive producer of the Kirk Minihane Show. Follow him on Twitter @BigSteve207.

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