NEA Report Takes Aim at 'Ultra-Conservative Network'
With an extensive new report claiming to document "an ultraconservative network" waging an assault on the public schools, the National Education Association has fired the latest volley in its battle against efforts to curb its political clout.
The 144-page report ties pro-voucher forces and religious conservatives to campaigns in several states to put new re-strictions on how unions--including teachers' unions--raise money for political purposes.
At a press briefing here last week, NEA Executive Director Don Cameron said his association wasn't "castigating the right of any group to contribute to conservative causes." Instead, he called the report a resource document for state and local affiliates that may soon face voucher and so-called paycheck-protection initiatives. "If somebody is running an agenda," Mr. Cameron said, "I think people should know about it."
An Anatomy Lesson
The investigation behind the report began during the union's campaign earlier this year against the California ballot initiative known as Proposition 226, Mr. Cameron said. The measure would have required unions to get each member's permission annually before spending his or her dues on politics. The June 2 initiative failed, with 53.5 percent of voters opposing it, to 46.5 percent in favor. ("Unions Hail Save of Payroll Deductions for Politics," June 10, 1998.)
Although NEA officials knew that many supporters of paycheck protection also favored vouchers, they said their research revealed that the two aims are being pushed by a wide-reaching national network of organizations and wealthy individuals.
"We started out looking at some 30 groups, and that expanded to well over 100," said Robert L. "Bobby" Watson, who led the research effort as a full-time consultant to the NEA. Mr. Watson is a former member of the staffs of both the NEA's government-relations team and of the Democratic National Committee.
Though he did not call the effort a "conspiracy," Mr. Cameron said the linkage between vouchers and initiatives like Proposition 226 is "not just random, it's strategic."
With information culled from newspapers, tax records, campaign filings, and the World Wide Web, the report, titled "The Real Story Behind Paycheck Protection," reads like an encyclopedia of conservative interests.
Included are descriptions of right-leaning think tanks, foundations, and politically active religious organizations. The report also provides short biographies of conservative activists and individuals who have contributed to voucher and paycheck-protection campaigns.
All the elements are linked together in a two-page flow-chart.
The anti-union network, the report says, draws energy and philosophical direction from such conservative Washington-based groups as the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Tax Reform, and the American Legislative Exchange Council.
The state-level think thanks that make up the membership of the Fort Wayne, Ind.-based State Policy Network give the movement its "arms and legs," the report adds.
The report also calls the "Religious Right" the heart of the conservative network, claiming that groups like the Christian Coalition and Focus on the Family have supported the campaign for paycheck protection.
"Choking off NEA funding is not an end in itself," the report states. "Rather, evidence indicates that the conservative network uses it as a critical step in achieving its broader aims--a state-by-state assault on public education."
News of the report passed quickly last week among the groups cited in it, as many faxed responses to reporters and posted them on their Web sites.
The NEA has "invented bogeyman conspiracies," voucher supporter Clint Bolick of the Washington-based Institute for Justice said in a statement. "This would be laughable if it weren't so pathetic."
A handful of officials from Mr. Bolick's group and Americans for Tax Reform passed out literature outside the NEA's downtown headquarters here as the report was released. A sign posted near a plastic jack-o'-lantern read, "The only scary thing is the NEA."
The report did not address the issue of paycheck protection, said Ronald Nehring, who directs Americans for Tax Reform's national campaigns, which include efforts to limit uses of union dues for political purposes. "Instead, they discredit and demonize in a McCarthyite way those people who are disagreeing with the union bosses," he said.
Mr. Cameron said he expected the report to open the NEA to further criticism. But given the pledge of supporters to introduce paycheck-protection initiatives in some 40 states next year, he added, "it was just important to get this out."
Vol. 18, Issue 6, Page 11