The National Education Association held its five-day annual meeting in Orlando, Fla., earlier this month. Ironically, the summit was heavily flavored with noneducational matters, including a wide range of political topics, according to various press reports.

Instead, the union used valuable meeting time to discuss everything from Medicare to foreign policy. Such political activism may lead many NEA members to wonder why they pay their dues — a question that is particularly pertinent in August.

News reports indicate that the nation’s largest teachers union discussed a broad agenda: the safety of prisoners in U.S. jails and prisons, Medicare Part B, voter ID cards, immigration reform, prescription drug prices, guaranteed health care, diabetes awareness, "clean" energy, the withdrawal of troops from Iraq and homosexual marriage. The union also voted to "release the names of financial firms" the NEA does business with if those firms support the privatization of Social Security.

According to one report, an unintentionally humorous resolution was introduced that asked for the NEA to alert members concerning the negative impact of "COSTCO" on the U.S. economy. The measure was withdrawn before a vote could be taken; the drafters had mistakenly confused COSTCO, the big box store, with COTCO, the China Overseas Trading Company.

That the NEA might plausibly cover everything from COSTCO to COTCO could lead one to wonder if the NEA is spending too much time on a political agenda, using the compulsory dues of its 2.8 million members.

One education-related item that was addressed had to do with home-schoolers. The NEA wants to make home-schooled children take the same state-mandated tests as students in public schools. Aside from the fact that public schools are having enough problems managing their own students, it’s difficult to see how mandatory testing of home-schoolers squares with the union’s usual complaints about standardized tests, which, they say, force educators to "teach to the test."

In fairness, the NEA is not alone in its political activity. When the American Federation of Teachers held its annual meeting in July, its leadership addressed critical educational issues such as the war in Iraq, single-payer health care, a call for election day to be a federal holiday, and boycotting Wal-Mart.

Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., was one of the main speakers at the AFT convention. When the union made him an honorary member, Kennedy asked, "Where do I send my dues?" If Sen. Kennedy really wants to pay dues to the union, he should be prepared to pay more than he would have in June because the union decided to raise dues by 75 cents per month per teacher. That may not sound like much, but it certainly adds up when you consider the AFT has 1.3 million members.

Fortunately for NEA and AFT members who are troubled by the union’s spending and priorities, Michigan law offers an option to resign in August, the 31-day window designated by the courts. This provision grants some freedom to teachers and other public school employees concerned that their hard-earned pay is taken in the form of union dues to pursue a plethora of non-educational agendas with which they may not agree. Those who resign as religious objectors can do so at any time during the year, but must donate an amount equal to their full dues to a charity. Those who resign from the union as a "fee payer" are only responsible for paying the amount of dues the union can prove is directly used for collective bargaining.

If enough employees exercise their right to resign, the topics at next year’s NEA and AFT conventions could look quite different.

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Ted P. O’Neil is an Education Research Associate with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.