NEA Dips Into New Fund To Aid Campaigns

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A special $5-per-member fee increase approved by the National Education Association this summer is now pumping millions of fresh dollars into battles over tax measures and voucher proposals across the country.

Union leaders earlier this month approved the release of nearly $1.4 million from the NEA's new Ballot Measure/Legislative-Crisis Fund to finance campaigns dealing with ballot initiatives in five states. And late last week, the organization's 159-member board of directors was slated to consider allocating $6.2 million more from the fund to help sway voters in California and Michigan.

Although the NEA has long been a major political player, union officials say that such spending levels would not have been possible if they hadn't increased the fees charged to members. In recent years, the cost of underwriting a growing number of state initiative campaigns has strained the union's overall revenues, they say.

Previously, said Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the NEA's director of government relations, the union could rely on a special contingency fund for unforeseen expenses and on a portion of her department's budget to pay for such campaigns. "But," she added, "there's not enough in that, or in the budget surplus, to meet the kinds of requests we're getting."

The NEA's contributions to state ballot campaigns jumped from $1.7 million in the 1994-96 election cycle to $6.2 million in the 1998-2000 cycle, according to an NEA briefing paper.

As a result, NEA delegates in July passed a five-year $5 "special assessment," 60 percent of which is for state ballot campaigns and lobbying efforts, the rest going to a national media campaign.

Never Enough

Though the fund hasn't yet generated anywhere near the amount that NEA leaders are distributing this fall, the expenditures will be offset by the additional money that comes in over the rest of the year, they say.

NEA officials agreed to support affiliates in five states that had requested:

  • $500,000 to support Arizona's Proposition 301, which would increase school funding through a hike in the state sales tax;
  • $450,000 to support Washington's Initiative 732, which would ensure annual cost-of-living adjustments to teachers salaries;
  • $350,000 to fight Massachusetts' Question 4, which would reduce state income taxes, and to fight Question 6, which would reduce automobile-related taxes and fees;
  • $25,000 to oppose Arkansas' Amendment 4, which would reduce the state sales tax.; and
  • $5,000 to support South Dakota's Amendment E, which would allow for the investment of the states "permanent school fund"—an endowment created by the sale and leasing of state-owned lands—in higher-yield, higher-risk securities.

The NEA board of directors, which must approve any request over $500,000, also planned late last week to decide whether to give $4.5 million to fight California's Proposition 38 and $1.7 million to battle Michigan's Proposition 1. Both are pro-voucher measures. The two allocations have been endorsed by the NEA's executive committee, a nine-member body that includes the union's top elected officials.

The NEA gave another $1 million to Michigan's anti-voucher campaign— and $1 million to finance several initiative campaigns in Oregon—from last year's budget.

In each case, the contributions are being combined with money raised locally, but NEA state affiliates say the help from headquarters will make a big difference.

"We established our own initiative fund a few years ago, but it's never enough," said Tommye Hutto, a spokeswoman for the California Teachers Association.

Not everyone was thrilled to hear of the union's muscle- flexing. "We're talking about a massive political machine here that's taking more money from its members to fight genuine education reform," said Travis R. Pardo, a researcher with the Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Focus on the Family Foundation, which supports vouchers.

Vol. 20, Issue 4, Page 17

Published in Print: September 27, 2000, as NEA Dips Into New Fund To Aid Campaigns
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