In the charged world of education politics, news that the nation's two main teacher organizations could merge into a single entity is being compared to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Washington-based National Education Association and the New York-based American Federation of Teachers have long been arch rivals, divided sharply over substance and style. The NEA, with some 2.1 million members nationwide, traditionally viewed teaching as a white-collar profession with little to gain in the rough and tumble world of labor politics. The AFT, by contrast, relished its links to the AFL-CIO, to which its 750,000 members pay dues.
Moreover, for most of the past 20 years the AFT has been virtually synonymous with its feisty, autocratic leader, Albert Shanker, who runs the organization with the iron-fisted discipline of an old-fashioned ward boss. The more sedate NEA has been guided by a succession of widely respected consensus leaders, such as current president Keith Geiger and predecessor Mary Hatwood Futrell, whose terms are limited by charter.