The Education Reform Primer: The Growth of NEA and AFT Membership in the Early 20th Century

The Education Reform Primer: A blog exploring the history of public school education in America
This blog will explore some of the influences from the last 375 years (mostly from the last 100 or so) that have shaped public school education and made it what it is today. So stay tuned, add this to your favorites, and prepare to receive a bit of education on education.

The Growth of NEA and AFT Membership in the Early 20th Century

We frequently hear about teachers’ unions, and their role in developing collective bargaining agreements and otherwise advancing the interests of teachers. Less frequently, we hear about the origin of these organizations and their respective differences. This post briefly explores the founding of the National Education Association (“NEA”) and the American Federation of Teachers (“AFT”), the most prominent and influential of the teachers’ unions. While the NEA started in 1857, the AFT did not form until 1916. During World War I, and soon after the AFT’s formation, both organizations saw significant growth in their respective memberships, but for different reasons.


The NEA’s strategy, which proved successful, was to work with administrators and national and state organizations to lobby legislators on various issues affecting educators. Before the turn of the twentieth century, the NEA had mostly administrators in its leadership positions, who were predominantly male. Early on, the NEA’s growth seemed related to its emphasis on administrator membership and balanced teacher demands.  At the turn of the century, more classroom teachers, who were mostly women, became increasingly vocal participants in the NEA. For instance, Margaret Haley, who was the leader of the Chicago Teachers Federation, spoke at the 1904 NEA convention on the topic of teachers organizing to secure improved classroom conditions. In 1910, the first female president of the NEA, Ella Flagg Young, was elected.

Thus, the change in leadership from male administrators to female teachers served to bolster NEA membership in the early twentieth century. Likely due in large part to this female leadership, the NEA played a role in women’s equality efforts. In 1917, despite retaining significant representation in leadership roles by male administrators, the NEA began to focus more on improving classroom conditions for teachers. By 1920, the NEA had grown too large to be run in the same manner, and it transitioned to a Representative Assembly, with state and local union delegates.


The AFT grew in membership by focusing on better salaries and benefits for teachers (administrators were excluded from membership). The AFT did not seem to focus efforts on state or national educational policy making, nor did it grow quite as rapidly as the NEA in its early years due to union opposition from business interests and politicians.

Though it did not grow as rapidly as the NEA at the outset, its growth was still significant, catalyzed by the acquisition of more than 150 local unions in its first few years. Yet, the first AFT president, Charles Stillman, failed to garner widespread support among female teacher members of the AFT. Stillman publicly supported the United States’ involvement in World War I, which caused pacifist and socialist members of the AFT to oppose his leadership of the organization. As a result, the AFT did not attract many elementary school teachers as members until the 1930s. However, the AFT was a party of early efforts to challenge racial segregation issues, demanding equal pay for teachers regardless of race in 1918. The NEA, meanwhile, would not do much to in regard to racial segregation until the 1960s.

The NEA and the AFT today

In 2019, the NEA is the nation’s largest professional employee organization, representing more than three million members classroom teachers, education support professionals, administrators, and higher education faculty and staff in every state in the nation. The AFT boasts a membership of just under two million. Both organizations are also involved in advocacy and politics, contributing considerable sums of money each year to political campaigns, mostly to Democratic candidates.

For more information

Barton Gilman provides the full scope of legal services to education clients – including charter schools, charter management organizations, private schools, education advocacy organizations and other education-related organizations – throughout Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York City. For more information, please click here.

Matthew R. Plain is a Partner at Barton Gilman focusing his practice on education law, including school governance, administrative law, labor and employment, special education, and contract drafting and disputes. In addition, Matt is currently serving his second term as an elected member of the East Greenwich School Committee. In this capacity, he chairs the district’s policy subcommittee and serves on the negotiating team. Matt also teaches Education Reform and Policy at Roger Williams University School of Education. He is a former public school teacher and holds a Master of Education degree with a concentration in Curriculum and Instruction. Matt has been named a 2019 Best Lawyer in America in Education Law, a New England Super Lawyer Rising Star, and a 40 Under Forty honoree by Providence Business News.