One of a Kind

With roughly three million members, the National Education Association is the largest labor union in the United States. When the American Federation of Teachers‘ 800,000 members are added to that figure, their combined membership is nearly double that of the next largest union – the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). NEA and AFT are political behemoths whose interests are ignored at the electoral peril of members of Congress and state legislators. In California, NEA affiliate California Teachers Association is the proverbial 800-pound gorilla hovering over Sacramento, with roughly $70 million currently available for the conduct of various forms of advocacy.

Strangely, when I was a graduate student there wasn’t a single course that introduced students to the history, organization, dynamics and accomplishments of the teachers unions. (I checked a UCLA General Catalog from the 1970s!) One would think that a graduate school of education at a leading research university would have taken note of the most influential interest group on the national education landscape.

Fortunately, an extraordinary freelance journalist named Mike Antonucci has taught me (and countless others) far more about the NEA, AFT and their affiliates, than any formal course could ever have hoped to accomplish. For nearly three decades Mr. Antonucci has, without question, served as the nation’s preeminent teachers union watchdog, chronicler, gadfly and nemesis. His name should be familiar to CAPSO Midweek E-Mailer readers, as his unique research, pithy observations, and keen insights have been cited in its columns time and again.

Last month, Mr. Antonucci abruptly announced his retirement. “I won’t bury the lede,” he wrote in the first line of an article published on November 15, 2023, “…I’m retiring, and this is my final column.” Just like that. Not exactly the sort of cold turkey one looks forward to, come Thanksgiving. And cold turkey is an apt idiom. For if you’ve ever bothered to read one of Mr. Antonucci’s articles, chances are you became a willing addict, as did I.

It took the better part of a week for me to read beyond that first jarring line. Much like closing in on the last page of an enthralling novel, one never wishes to end, I wanted the pleasure of reading Mike Antonucci’s peerless reporting and commentary to continue without end. It was just that good.

When I finally forced myself to read the entirety of his final column, I saw that Mike had done something completely out of character. He wrote about himself. Who knew the man had been an animated film maker, a sheet metal worker, and – for nearly 8 years – the navigator of a C-130 Hercules transport aircraft in the U.S. Air Force? Or, that after earning a Masters Degree in International Affairs he launched his freelance writing career as a military historian? “I took work as a newsletter editor,” he recalled, “back when the internet was a rumor, personal computers only did one thing at a time, and ‘cut and paste’ meant scissors and glue.”

Luckily for future devotees like me, a story he chanced to write about a teachers union struck a responsive chord with readers. And the rest, as they say, is history. Writing under his own Education Intelligence Agency banner, Mike Antonucci covered the teachers union beat like no other. He painstakingly combed his way through sheaves of data to produce his own compilations that offered a more valid portrayal of membership and financial information than the talking points served up for public consumption in official union press releases.

Year after year he sat through NEA’s Annual Meeting and Representative Assembly, an undertaking akin to reporting from deep within enemy territory in a war zone. Not only did Mike cover the major policy themes and resolutions adopted by this assemblage, he also took pains to share a sample of proposals that failed to win approval. Somehow, he managed to cultivate sources with sufficiently high standing within the unions to secure copies of documents intended for internal consumption only.

Writing with a combination of fearless fact finding, incisive analysis, and wry humor, he provided critical context to union claims concerning teacher shortages and school finance, gave readers an inside look into union governance (often revealing practices that differed from those for which unions advocated), offered fascinating analyses of strike strategies, and cast a light on corruption.

If you’ve missed out on being enlightened and entertained by Mike Antonucci’s one-of-a-kind reporting, The74 – which has served as a distributor of his columns for the past 7 years – makes those dating back to 2016 available here. Scroll through the titles and read an article or two that strike you as interesting. You won’t stop there!

My own personal collection of Mike Antonucci columns extends back to November 16, 2009. The first article Mike published in 2010 was titled: “The EIA Public Education Quotes of the Decade.” (He had made a practice of ending each of his columns with his selection of the “Quote of the Week,” and this was a distillation of the most outrageous among them.) A few excerpts:

  • “Folks, we’re in trouble. If we were in private business, we’d be out of business.” – Kenneth Burnley, chief executive officer of the Detroit Public Schools. (April 6, 2001 Detroit News)
  • “When the scores go up, it’s not just meaningless. It’s worrisome.” – Alfie Kohn. (October 18, 2008 Salt Lake Tribune)
  • “A man without vision might as well be blind.” – a delegate to the NEA Representative Assembly, debating NBI 14, which dealt with the state of art and music education in America’s public schools. (July 3, 2006 NEA Representative Assembly)

His humor notwithstanding, Mike Antonucci is deserving of recognition, accolades, and gratitude for having produced a corpus of work that should be required reading for anyone with a serious interest in education policy. He should have been the recipient of a MacArthur Fellows Program Grant – the so-called “Genius Grant.” But I suppose he’ll have to settle for the knowledge that he has fashioned a legacy of journalistic excellence that is venerated by countless readers whose minds he has sharpened and whose lives he has enriched. His remarkable contributions to the American conversation will long be remembered.

Ron Reynolds

Note: The commentary and views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of the California Association of Private School Organizations, or its members.


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