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Hundreds of Utah school workers, many of whom don't want to be a part of the state's largest teachers union, have joined a new group that's hoping to catch legislators' ears on education issues this year.
The Utah Council of Educators, now about 18 months old, was founded partly out of frustration with the Utah Education Association (UEA), council President Dave Barrett said. Like the UEA, the council collects dues. Unlike the UEA, the council is not a union, won't do collective bargaining and pledges to spend members' money only on Utah education issues. The group has, for the first time this year, hired the Salt Lake City firm Sego Strategies & Consulting LLC to help it lobby when the Legislature starts Jan. 22, Barrett said.
"It's part of a larger national trend," Barrett said. "Teachers don't want an organization to spend money on issues they don't agree with."
The council and UEA have several positions in common, such as wanting to reduce class sizes and raise teacher salaries. But they also differ on some issues. Barrett said most of his group's members were against vouchers, but the group's position was to let the public decide and then work with the outcome. The National Education Association (NEA), which is the umbrella organization for many state unions including the UEA, poured more than $3 million into the fight against vouchers in Utah.
"I'm not going to tell our members how to vote," Barrett said.
UEA President Kim Campbell, however, sees the union's efforts to defeat vouchers in Utah as an example of how effective the UEA and NEA can be.
"I think folks in the classroom understand what we can do working together, and the voucher campaign was proof of that," Campbell said.
Utah is now one of more than 20 states with such a nonunion education association. Though the Utah council only has several hundred members, nationwide more than 300,000 teachers, school support staff and administrators are members of such nonunion groups, said Heather Reams, associate director of the Association of American Educators, which partners with many of the groups, including the one in Utah.
In several states, including Georgia, Texas and Missouri, the memberships of these nonunion groups, which often include all school workers, have actually eclipsed memberships of those states' teachers unions affiliated with the NEA.
"Do we have the kind of clout the NEA has? No," Reams said. "We're not paying for campaigns or knocking on doors, but we are a very credible voice. When legislators want to hear what educators think without any spin or agenda, they come to us."
Barrett said he founded the Utah Council of Educators partly because he believes the UEA has become ineffective. He said long-growing tension between the UEA and legislators has impeded the union's ability to work with lawmakers on behalf of teachers.
"Their ability to make important changes and get the ear of lawmakers has diminished over the years," Barrett said. "We don't want to make enemies on the hill, we want to make friends."
Campbell said the UEA, which represents more than 18,000 Utah certificated educators, continues to be effective.
"The UEA's been successfully representing members and public schools and children in those public schools for almost 150 years, and that's resulted in a lot of good things for students, for our members and for our schools," Campbell said. "I think it's obvious strength is in numbers and people acting together have much more power than people acting alone."
Still, Barrett believes it's time for a change. Despite the council's age and relatively small membership, it's already gotten some prominent lawmakers' attention.
Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, chairman of the House Education Committee, said he takes the new group seriously.
"There's no doubt there's been a history with the teachers union," Hughes said. "This group doesn't have that history so I think there's an obvious benefit to them going into a session not having that kind of baggage."
Rep. Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville, who is also a teacher, said legislators will seriously consider any valid teachers group. But at the same time, the UEA's continued power cannot be underestimated, he said.
"Though they may not have great relations with some of the different legislators on Capitol Hill, I think by and large, the UEA is going to be something people will continue to pay attention to," Holdaway said. "Part of the reason for that is just numbers. That's the political reality."
Barrett said he expects his group to be as large as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Utah, another teachers union, within about a year. The AFT claims about 1,000 Utah members, President Debbie White said.