Teacher Unions Try New Strategies To Lobby for Share of State Funding

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Prospects for the public schools in recession-racked New York State looked bleak last spring as educators braced for an anticipated $240 million reduction in state aid, the third massive cut in as many years. But when it came time to adopt a budget, legislators not only spared education but slightly increased funding to schools.

Although the change can be traced to a number of different factors, a public-relations campaign by the New York State United Teachers played an important part in holding the line on education cuts.

For the first time, the teachers' union shelled out more than $1 million on a media blitz to marshal grassroots support for its agenda. Television, newspaper, and billboard advertisements bombarded New Yorkers with the message that their way of life and their children's futures were in danger if the cuts went through. Included in the ads was a toll-free telephone number that the public was asked to call to stop the education cuts; callers were given advice about contacting their representatives.

Combined with the media crusade was a poll commissioned by îùóõô showing that a majority of New Yorkers would rather pay higher taxes than allow education to deteriorate.

The union's actions represent a subtle shift in strategy that is evident in other states across the nation as well. While not abandoning their traditional tactics, teachers' unions are looking for new ways to sway state lawmakers during a time of tight budgets and an increasingly crowded field of competing pressure groups.

"We believe that while a 30-second ad doesn't stop cuts, it does heighten public awareness,'' said Linda Rosenblatt, the New York union's chief spokeswoman.

"We were able to get the funding [because] of the people who live in the districts where the lawmakers live who vote on these issues,'' she said. "They sent a message, loud and clear.''

Lobbying Powerhouses

With few exceptions, the state affiliates of the nation's teachers' unions--particularly of the National Education Association--are perceived as among the most powerful lobbies in statehouses across the country.

The unions typically employ relatively large cadres of seasoned lobbyists, and through their political-action committees are some of the biggest contributors to candidates.

Moreover, the unions are renowned for their ability to mobilize teachers to campaign for candidates.

Despite the clout the unions enjoy, though, some politicians and observers of state government suggest that external forces have undercut their dominance somewhat, spurring the need for change.

"While they are still significant lobbying forces to be respected, I don't think they have the influence they have been credited with in the past,'' said Tom Gentzel, the chief lobbyist for the Pennsylvania State School Boards Association.

"There are so many lobbying groups in Harrisburg and most state capitals, there isn't any one of them that is so overwhelmingly powerful that it can work its agenda at will,'' he added.

Mr. Gentzel said that point was brought vividly home to him this year when the legislature was considering a bill to limit teacher strikes. School strikes are a volatile issue in Pennsylvania, which has led the nation in walkouts in recent years.

During debate on the measure, the school boards' association, the teachers' unions, and most of the other parties to the discussions were focusing on the collective-bargaining aspects of the bill. But Mr. Gentzel recalled being stopped one day by a farm-group lobbyist, who wanted to talk about an animal-rights provision that had been tacked on.

"That is one of the forces we have to contend with,'' Mr. Gentzel said. "There are more players in the game.''

A Proliferation of Players

As the debate about education has intensified in recent years, there has been a proliferation of groups competing with the unions for the attention of lawmakers: antitax organizations, conservative religious groups, and nonunion professional teachers' associations, among others.

In both California and Pennsylvania this year, for instance, a coalition of groups waged vocal campaigns for inclusive school-choice programs. Although neither was successful, the coalitions in both states have vowed to press their demands for public subsidies for parents who send their children to private and religious schools.

The issue marked the first time the Pennsylvania State Education Association has done battle with the state Catholic Conference, which was one of the leaders of the pro-voucher coalition. Observers described the efforts by both sides of the issue to influence the legislature as one of the hardest-fought lobbying battles in years. (See Education Week, Jan. 8, 1992.)

Even so, Donald F. Morabito, the ð.ó.å.á.'s assistant executive director for government relations, downplayed the impact of the rise of the special-interest groups.

"I don't want to pretend these groups are without influence,'' he said. "But honestly, they don't affect our lobbying agenda.''

Others in Pennsylvania and elsewhere would differ, however. "The unions certainly have been much more aware of that threat, much more attuned to public opinion in that regard, and have stepped up their efforts to inform the citizenry,'' said G. Terry Madonna, the director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Millersville University in Pennsylvania.

Economic Hard Times

But even if competing groups had not surfaced, the teachers' unions would have had to contend with a more widespread concern--the economy. With less money available all around, they have had to fight harder for education's share of state funding.

"What is happening is not just a response to the Christian right,'' Mr. Madonna observed. "More importantly, it is a reflection of hard economic times and the fact that the legislature and governor had not funded education to the degree they had in the past.''

"It's recognition on the part of the unions that they have to work harder and smarter to counter that,'' he noted.

When the unions have been unable to get what they want by knocking on lawmakers' doors or testifying before legislative committees, some have taken their frustrations public in hopes of whipping up support.

Teachers in Mississippi and Iowa, for example, marched on their state capitols last spring to demand funding for education.

"This year the situation was so grim that we felt we needed to put something that dramatic together,'' said Angie King, the president of the Iowa Education Association.
Education ended up with an additional $85 million in the Iowa budget, which was less than the union had hoped for but more than state officials had proposed.

"From that standpoint, [union strategy] was successful because education was not harmed as much as it could have been,'' said Ms. King.

In Florida, meanwhile, the teachers' unions engaged in a tough public-relations campaign this year in behalf of a plan to restructure the state's tax system and provide more money for education.

The unions' campaign was part of a larger drive, spearheaded by Gov. Lawton Chiles, to encourage the public to pressure lawmakers into amending the tax code.

Just prior to the return of the legislature for a special session, the state's two big teachers' unions exhorted voters, through a pool of television ads, to call a dozen state senators who appeared to be the most resistant to an expansion of the tax base.

Although the legislature did not wholeheartedly embrace the tax package, it did authorize an additional $200 million for education.

Building Coalitions

What happened in Florida also illustrates another tack some unions have taken to strengthen their case before lawmakers.

The two unions--Florida Teaching Profession-N.E.A. and Florida Education Association/United--worked in tandem to leverage their pull.

Coalition building, in fact, is a strategy more and more unions are turning to.

While lawmakers, business leaders, and the staff of Gov. William F. Weld were negotiating in Massachusetts this year about a comprehensive education-reform package, the state's two teachers' unions felt left out. So the self-described "diehard enemies'' got together and forged their own plan.

"We had to bend and compromise on some of the big issues we each held close to our hearts to come to a common ground,'' said Paul Devlin, the president of the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers. "Each of us found out we were not horned and tailed.''

As a result, the M.F.T. and the Massachusetts Teachers Association will coordinate legislative efforts around their reform document. At the same time, Mr. Devlin noted, "It doesn't mean we have to come to total understanding on all issues.''

New Mexico Victory

The teachers' unions in New Mexico applied the same strategy this year when, after years of trying, public employees finally won the right to bargain collectively. The teachers' effort was broadened further by the inclusion of other public-employee unions in the coalition. (See Education Week, March 18, 1992.)

In previous attempts to win bargaining rights, each union's lobbyists worked the entire legislature. This time, though, "We divided the legislators by who we felt they would respond better to,'' said Charles Bowyer, the president of N.E.A.-New Mexico.

Subsequently, N.E.A.-New Mexico and the New Mexico Federation of Teachers have agreed to meet on a continuing basis and discuss their legislative platforms in the hope of limiting the friction between them. The two groups this summer also agreed to a jurisdictional truce in representation elections that was seen as a possible step toward merger. (See Education Week, Sept. 9, 1992.)

"If each of us claims to represent teachers and we ask for two diametrically opposed things, it obviously is confusing to legislators,'' Mr. Bowyer said.

The unions in New Mexico also enlisted the help of their sizable memberships. Members were asked to meet informally with their legislators back in their home districts.

Mobilizing their members has always been a feat at which the teachers' unions excel. But these days union leaders are working even harder to rally their troops in support of their legislative agenda.

The P.S.E.A., for example, is expanding its annual lobby days from three to six a year. About 200 teachers from across Pennsylvania travel to Harrisburg during these periods. Union leaders spend Mondays briefing the teachers, who then fan out to their respective representatives' offices.

Circumventing the Legislature

In California, political gridlock in Sacramento and the continuing popularity of the initiative process have shifted the focus from the legislature to the ballot, according to Ken DeBow, a professor of government at California State University at Sacramento.

For example, the unions successfully used the initiative process to establish Proposition 98, which guarantees that 40 percent of the general fund be used for K-14 education. "They just circumvented the legislature to get that,'' Mr. DeBow said.

At the same time, however, the relative ease of gaining access to the ballot has occasionally put the unions on the defensive, as they seek to hold off initiatives they see as harmful to education.

To prevent a school-voucher initiative from getting on this fall's ballot, the California Teachers Association mounted an all-out campaign to prevent backers from obtaining the required number of signatures.

The union stationed members at sites, such as shopping malls, where voucher proponents were gathering signatures for their petitions. Although barred by law from getting too close to the signature gatherers, C.T.A. members would shout arguments against the proposal at potential signers.

Some initiative advocates also have accused union members of deliberately putting invalid signatures on the petitions. State officials this summer barred the proposal from the November ballot, postponing it until June 1994, because the rate of invalid signatures on the petitions was too high. C.T.A. officials have denied the charge, however.

Ralph J. Flynn, the executive director of the C.T.A., said the only thing novel about the union's aggressive approach was that it was the first time the state organization had used it. Union locals had done so previously, he said.

Mr. Flynn maintained that the driving force behind the change in union tactics originated in the shift of education funding from the local to the state level. "It wasn't some newfound belief in the wonders of politics,'' he said. "It was survival.''

He said he also anticipates major changes in union politicking when the state's term-limitation law, which bars legislators and other top officials from serving more than two terms, takes effect. The C.T.A., he said, will be much more active in recruiting politicians and much more concerned about prospective governors.

Term limitation "is going to make a massive change in how we do business,'' Mr. Flynn observed. "The grooming of candidates and education of legislators is going to become a major part of our political programs here.''

Playing Harder Ball?

State lawmakers generally say they have witnessed little or no difference in the way the unions attempt to sway them.

"I can't say I have seen a dramatic change in the way they lobby. They knock on my door like every other lobbyist,'' said Rep. Stephen H. Stetler, a Pennsylvania Democrat who declined an endorsement from the P.S.E.A. this year.

But some observers say they see signs of a union shift to a rougher brand of hardball.

"They are acting more and more like a real union and less and less like a teachers' association,'' said Louis Grumet, the executive director of the New York State School Boards Association.

Ms. Rosenblatt of NYSUT acknowledged that her organization is an active participant in using the political process to advance its ends.

"We do examine voting records, and we do hold people accountable,'' she said. "We also reward people who are supportive. The process isn't any more mystical than that.''

During the school-voucher debate in Pennsylvania late last year, proponents of school choice contended that the unions engaged in fear tactics and spread misleading information to the public to beat the bill.

The unions "went to the legislators and said, 'If you pass this we will do everything in our efforts to defeat you,' '' said James J. Cusimano, the superintendent of education for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown.

"In past years, it really wasn't necessary to reach quite those heights,'' Mr. Cusimano continued. "It wasn't necessary to use intimidation. It wasn't necessary to be that public about their influence. They were able to do it in a very sophisticated way in the past.''

But Mr. Morabito said the union defeated the bill by exposing the truth about the expense and effects of the measure.

"We don't have the ability to march across the street and tell the legislature and the governor what to do,'' he asserted.

Vol. 12, Issue 05

Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
Ground Rules for Posting
We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
All comments are public.

Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories