Armed with a Utah attorney general's opinion that supports their access to Utah schools, the American Federation of Teachers will increase its drive for membership in the state.
"The door has been opened for teachers. They know now we do have two organizations and that they have an option. There is no absolute monopoly any more," said Ken Zenger, AFT director of organizing in Utah and chairman of the state's AFT Council of Presidents.The opinion, released last month, addressed the AFT's complaints that the union had been denied the ability to solicit membership in some school districts because the Utah Education Association was claiming exclusive rights. The document says the AFT should have equal access to teachers along with other representative groups for soliciting membership and to provide representation during grievances.
Zenger said the opinion, which ended exclusivity efforts by the much larger UEA, is likely to encourage teachers who have been interested in AFT membership but have hesitated because they felt they could not be well represented by the organization.
"We have had lots of implicit support. Now they can come out into the sunshine," Zenger said."Closet members will join us, and there are hundreds of them out there. The opinion says we can represent teachers in grievances. Now they can pick their own agent."
The AFT hopes to pick up support in Utah for its national programs, including a strong move for educational reform that stresses teacher involvement in school governance.
At a recent national meeting in California, the union reported that while the seeds of reform have been planted, the "business-as-usual" inertia of the present educational system is impeding implementation.
Public and teacher control of schools is a major thrust of the AFT reform movement, Zenger said. As the educational component closest to students, teachers should be more involved in decision-making, rather than being left only to carry out directions from administrators.
The national conference also addressed the question of better training programs for teachers. Classroom changes must begin at the level where teachers are trained, Zenger said, and too many of the training institutions are bogged down in tradition and mediocrity to fuel the needed improvement.
If tax initiatives pass in Utah and lead to larger classes and fewer supplies for Utah teachers, they will bear the brunt of the tax cuts, Zenger said. It would be preferable to cut at the administrative level, he said.