By Ben Velderman

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In early 2011, producers for the radio program This American Life caused a brief media sensation when they announced they had discovered the original formula for Coca-Cola.

Ironically, the heavily guarded, 125-year-old recipe had been hiding in plain sight for more than thirty years.

The radio producers discovered a photograph in the February 18, 1979 edition of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that showed a couple of pages from a “leather-bound recipe book of ointments and medicines” that was kept by a friend of Coca-Cola founder John Pemberton and “passed down by friends and family for generations,” reports

On those pages was the original secret formula, though nobody seems to have realized it at the time. Even if they had, the Coca-Cola company had sufficiently tweaked its special formula over the years that it wasn’t in danger of having its modern-day formula copied by competitors.

Likewise, researchers with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a nonpartisan education policy think tank,  may have uncovered the secret ingredient to the state-level teacher unions’ recipe for accumulating and perpetuating their political power.

It was in plain sight all along, too. All it took was a little research.

In its report, “How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions? A State-By-State Comparison,” the Fordham Institute notes that 19 of the nation’s 20 most powerful state teacher unions receive agency fees from non-union educators. The opposite is also true: 17 of the 20 weakest state teacher unions are prohibited from collecting agency fees.

Agency fees are what teachers in many non-Right-to-Work states are legally obligated to pay the local teachers union, even if they choose to forego union membership. Agency fees are paid in lieu of regular union dues, and they are believed to be roughly 80 percent of a full dues payment, according to the Association of American Educators.

Agency fees are a bald-faced money grab by the unions, but labor leaders dress it up by claiming non-union teachers must pay for the collective bargaining “services” the union provides on their behalf, whether those services are wanted or not.

By denying teachers an escape hatch from the grip of organized labor, agency fee laws allow state teacher unions to collect money from and represent all educators, regardless of whether there is widespread support among teachers to even have a union. Those employees who would prefer independent status are essentially forced into the union, so there is de facto 100 percent membership. The agency fees generate millions for union coffers and are used to help consolidate the unions’ political power and influence over education policy in dozens of states.

As Elton John might say, it’s the circle of life – for teacher unions, anyway.

‘Money in the bank and boots on the ground’

Dara Zeehandelaar, a Fordham Institute researcher manager who worked on the report, says agency fees are an important part of a teacher union’s overall success, but downplays the idea that they are the direct cause of that success.

“Union power requires money in the bank and boots on the ground,” Zeehandelaar tells EAGnews. “Agency fees are extremely important (to a union’s overall power), but they’re not deterministic.”

A teachers union may have plenty of cash and volunteers, but it still won’t be seen as a powerful union if state lawmakers are not receptive to its message.

The most effective teacher unions maximize their influence in state capitals by helping elect “more receptive” lawmakers. Many unions have political action committees (PACs) for this very purpose. But it’s against the law to use agency fee revenue in campaign contributions.

But Zeehandelaar says that doesn’t mean agency fees don’t get used for political purposes. Unions engage in all sorts of day-to-day political activities, such as renting buses to transport union members to a rally or sending mailers to union members to inform them of union-endorsed candidates.

“All of those internal political activities can be paid with dues and agency fees,” Zeehandelaar says.

It seems clear to us that agency fees are the key ingredient to the unions’ recipe for power and control over America’s education system.

The Fordham Institute report acknowledges that agency fees are “a key source of union revenue,” but researchers can’t say with certainty that agency fees create powerful unions.

“This is not a casual analysis,” Zeehandelaar says. “This is a just a list.”

Other key findings

The Fordham Institute report sheds light on some other elements of the teacher unions’ formula for success.

For instance, the 10 most powerful state teacher unions all exist in states where collective bargaining is mandated by law: Hawaii, Oregon, Montana, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, California, New Jersey, Illinois, New York and Washington State.

Seven of those Top 10 most powerful unions don’t have any limitations on what they can negotiate into teacher contracts.

Those two provisions alone give unions a huge amount of control over the spending practices and working conditions in their state’s public schools. And if teachers somehow don’t get what they want at the bargaining table, they are allowed to strike in seven of those states.

We believe these factors – along with the requirement of agency fees – help explain why nine of the Top 10 state unions boast a  membership rate of 85 percent. Only Montana falls short of that mark.

Forced membership gives unions the power to extract more dollars from members and agency fee payers.

The average per-member dues in the Top 10 state unions is $679.30; that provides the unions with a deep war chest to promote their agenda to lawmakers and taxpayers alike.

For comparison’s sake, the Bottom 10 state teacher unions only generate $138.20 a year per member.

Readers of the Fordham report may be tempted into thinking the unions’ secret formula for success has been revealed. But Fordham researchers refuse to draw any sweeping conclusions from their study.

But that doesn’t mean the report doesn’t offer some important takeaways.

Zeehandelaar says the most important lesson is that parents and taxpayers shouldn’t limit their focus to the policy decisions of their local school district.

“People really need to pay attention to what’s happening at the state level, because policy groups – like teacher unions – are having a direct influence over policies, such as how teachers are fired, or the number of hours their children are in school,” she says.

“The state creates the local conditions.”