Report rates Utah's teachers unions as 'weak'
Education • Conservative think tank ranks state unions 39th in nation.
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Utah's teachers unions are relatively weak compared with others across the country, according to a report released Monday by a Washington D.C.-based, conservative think tank.

The Thomas B. Fordham Institute ranked Utah's teachers unions 39th in the country, labeling them as "weak." According to the report, Utah's unions ranked low when it came to resources, membership and perceived influence. They ranked more highly, 25th in the country, when it came to involvement in politics. The report also ranked unions on bargaining scope and state policies.

"For better or worse, teachers unions look out for teacher interests," said Fordham President Chester E. Finn Jr. in a news release. "This study sheds light on how exactly they do this, by measuring their strength, state by state, more comprehensively than any other analysis to date."

In a mission statement on its website, the institute states that too many U.S. schools are dysfunctional, creating a dire situation for the country's neediest children "whose school systems are too often held hostage by adult interest groups, including but not limited to teacher unions."

Not everyone in Utah, however, agreed with the analysis.

"I'd say they haven't lived in Utah," said Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, president of the 18,000-member Utah Education Association (UEA), of the report's authors. "What I know is this isn't about being strong or weak. What this is about is being able to collaborate to make a difference for public education, and that's what we've been able to accomplish."

Sen. Aaron Osmond, R-South Jordan, said he was surprised to hear of the Utah unions' relatively low ranking. Osmond worked with the UEA, along with a number of other groups last year to craft SB64, an educator accountability law that was hailed by many on both sides of the aisle as landmark legislation.

"To me the true test of leadership is in knowing how to respectfully work with those that have different opinions, come to agreement through meaningful compromise, and work for a mutually beneficial solution to real challenges," Osmond said in an email to The Tribune. "I believe that the UEA is trying to do just that. That is more important to me than some national ranking on the power of their political influence in Utah."

Judi Clark, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education, a group that is often at odds with the UEA, also disagreed that the UEA is a weak organization.

"Obviously they were looking to compare nationally, but they continue to be the single biggest barrier in Utah to policies that put students ahead of systems," Clark said.

John Balden, president of the AFT Utah, another teachers union, however, said the report's labeling of Utah's unions — including the UEA and AFT Utah — wasn't surprising. He said as a right-to-work state, a number of Utah teachers benefit from the groups' work without actually having to be members. The AFT Utah has fewer than 1,000 members.

According to the report, 32 states require local school boards to bargain collectively with teachers; 14 (including Utah) permit bargaining; and five states prohibit collective bargaining.

lschencker@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lschencker —

To learn more

To see the full report on the strength of U.S. teachers unions go to http://tinyurl.com/8gcuer2.