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Once mighty teacher union's influence on wane

At a time when education is Florida's defining issue, the organization that claims to speak for teachers is a muffled voice in the debate.

While the Florida Education Association represents thousands of teachers, it rarely plays an influential role in the state Capitol these days. Local affiliates are increasingly under pressure from their own teachers, who question their effectiveness. Gov. Jeb Bush, Republican lawmakers and, increasingly, business interests are more aggressive about identifying public education's shortcomings and pursuing solutions.

Two years after Florida's two teachers unions merged in a bid to speak with one powerful voice, the Florida Education Association faces serious challenges:

Teachers complain local unions don't push hard enough for pay increases at a time when they are held more accountable for student performance. They wonder what the union is doing to justify annual dues, which are $465 in Pinellas and $525 in Hillsborough.

Roughly 6 out of 10 teachers in Florida are union members, and many of the members are nearing retirement. Younger teachers appear to be slower to join.

Republican Gov. Jeb Bush and the GOP-led Legislature are ignoring the union's objections and often openly hostile to the organization as they create school grades, tuition vouchers and performance pay for teachers.

The union's political endorsements and fundraising are rarely the difference between winning and losing elections.

"Historically, the teachers unions have been the most active, most influential of all the unions in Florida _ a major player," said Bruce Nissen, a professor at the Center of Labor Research and Studies at Florida International University. "But that's changing."

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