Teachers' Unions Spend Big, Reap Little in Elections
Over the last eight years, Republican-dominated statehouses and a White House bent on accountability dealt teachers' unions a wave of setbacks on their key issues, whittling away at bargaining rights, instituting merit pay, expanding charter school and choice programs, and making budget cuts leading to teacher layoffs.
So this campaign season, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association bolted out the gate early with presidential endorsements, a flood of campaign spending on high-priority races and ballot measures, and plenty of organizational muscle to push their agendas.
But with a few notable exceptions, they came up dry.
Donald Trump, an unpredictable Republican who has expressed support for school choice and merit pay, will reside in the White House next year.
GOP legislators and governors consolidated power in the South and crept into storied union states such as Connecticut and Kentucky.
And voters soundly rejected a ballot measure in Oregon that would have provided millions more dollars to public schools—an effort on which the NEA spent more than $150,000—as well as a ballot measure in Oklahoma that would've provided teachers with a $5,000 pay raise.
Teachers' unions will likely feel the political reverberations for years.
"It's very disappointing," AFT President Randi Weingarten said in an interview after the results were announced. "When you are all in on anything and you lose, it's heartbreaking." But, she added, "you brush yourself off and pull yourself back together again."
Said Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the NEA, in a statement the day after Election Day: "We must realize that today is not the end but the beginning of what we do to keep our country strong for our children. ... Don't mourn. Organize."
Helping the Affiliates
Federal Election Commission filings show that the NEA's national office routed more than $21.9 million through its local affiliates' PACs in campaign contributions through the third quarter of this year's reporting cycle, ending Sept. 30. The AFT spent more than $10.3 million through the third quarter.
Of the more than 18,000 super-PACs in the country, the NEA's was the 10th largest spender in campaign contributions this year, and the AFT's was the 28th largest.
In addition, the NEA and the AFT this year for the first time joined forces with the AFL-CIO and the American Council of State, County and Union Employees to create a super-PAC called For Our Future PAC, which accepts philanthropic money. That super-PAC spent more than $32 million on state and federal races this year.
Together, the two national teachers' unions, which both endorsed Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, dispatched more than 160,000 foot soldiers to staff phone banks and to canvass. They poured more than $950,000 into presidential-campaign ads in Ohio and Florida, two swing states. And they spent a record $28 million to push their state-level preferences in everything from ballot initiatives to legislative races, FEC filings show.
There were some bright spots. Using more than $16 million collected from their members, unions managed to help defeat two well-funded campaigns. One in Georgia would have let the state take over its worst-performing schools. Another in Massachusetts would have dramatically expanded the presence of charter schools. And they won on several funding ballot measures in California, where affiliates spent more than $35 million in campaign contributions this year. A school funding measure in Maine—proposed and funded with $500,000 from the NEA—also passed.
The unions have worked hard to keep up with the pace of political spending supercharged by the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling, which eliminated restrictions on corporate and union spending in elections.
"What's happened since Citizens United is the spigot of money has been opened, and it's enabled lots of toxic and negative advertising as opposed to what was the traditional get-out-the-vote operations," Weingarten said. "For us, what it's meant is that you need to actually do a lot of work and build a lot of your own campaign infrastructure early."
But Mike Antonucci, a frequent union critic, said that as much as union officials begrudge outside spending on local races, the NEA and the AFT participate in the practice—in their view, a defensive measure.
"Citizens United put them in the same category as corporations, so now they can spend an unlimited amount of money as long as it's not coordinated with campaigns," said Mike Antonucci, who runs a private, for-profit, contract research firm focused on the inner workings of the teachers' unions. "On the one hand, they hate Citizens United, but they said, 'As long as it's the law, we're going to take advantage of it and spend as much as we can.' "
In 2000, he noted, the NEA's Representative Assembly decided to issue a $20 annual fee to its more than 3 million members to help defeat ballot measures and legislative priorities the union thinks aim to destroy public education. By the start of this campaign season, the union had $82 million in the fund, according to a memo posted on its website.
"If you have $82 million in your campaign war chest and you don't spend it, members are going to start asking why aren't you spending it," said Antonucci.
Picking Its Shots
A few specific races illustrate the range of contests unions spent on, as well as the local appetite.
In Indiana, the NEA contributed $100,000 to the failed re-election bid of Democratic state schools chief Glenda Ritz and another $300,000 to the losing Democratic gubernatorial candidate, John Gregg. Both campaigned on returning decisionmaking power to local administrators, loosening up the state's accountability system, and scrapping its troubled standardized test.
The NEA affiliate in Indiana has suffered a round of financial setbacks in recent years, and lawmakers have made it a felony for teachers to use their work emails to campaign for candidates.
"The state government will do everything in their power to put obstacles in our way," said Indiana NEA affiliate President Teresa Meredith.
The NEA also pumped $600,000 into Kentucky to elect Democrats. A battle to expand charter schools has roiled the state for several years.
In the end, however, Democrats lost more than 17 seats they controlled in the Kentucky Senate.
Vol. 36, Issue 13, Page 22Published in Print: November 16, 2016, as Teachers' Unions Spend Big, Mostly Fall Short in Elections