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How the NEA, the Nation’s Largest Teachers’ Union, Grades Congress

By Andrew Ujifusa — January 23, 2020 4 min read
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A few days ago, the National Education Association released its legislative report card for the first session of the 116th Congress. This is something the nation’s largest teachers’ union—in fact, the NEA is the largest labor union of any kind in the U.S.—does on a regular basis. But with a presidential election putting an especially big charge into education politics, let’s take a look at the grades the NEA has handed out.

One tidbit for you: Despite all the flak they catch from many Democrats for their education positions, two Democratic presidential candidates—Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., and Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.—both received A grades for the first session of this Congress, just like they did in the 114th Congress and the 115th Congress. These grades don’t—and aren’t meant to—reflect their entire education track records and what they’ve said during their 2020 presidential runs. Still, Booker’s support for the District of Columbia voucher program clearly hasn’t hurt him too much with the union, for example.

Back to the grades in general: Like other organizations, the NEA has what are essentially “key votes.” The union doesn’t use this term on its report card, but the concept refers to a particularly important bill for the group. How a lawmaker votes on that bill will significantly impact the grade that he or she gets, although those votes aren’t the only factor in those grades.

Click here to see the NEA’s full list of key votes. Other than appropriations bills that deal with federal spending on education programs, you’ll see bills about increasing pay for federal workers, background checks for gun sales, middle class taxes, limiting debate on judicial nominees, and voting rights. During all this activity, there’s simply been a lack of education policy bills that create or amend new laws and make it to the floor of either chamber for a full vote, and for the NEA to subsequently grade lawmakers on.

NEA’s priority bills reflect difficult, controversial issues of the day that intersect with schools in different ways and to different degrees. These bills cover immigration (hundreds of thousands of students and tens of thousands of educators are covered by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA), and gun control (the NEA is vigorously opposed to arming teachers), just to name two example. And the union’s support for higher pay for federal civilian workers, for example, demonstrates public solidarity with another group of workers represented by organized labor.

Marc Egan, the NEA’s director of government relations, sounded an optimistic note about the grades, saying in a statement that, “We are pleased to see positive signs of more bipartisan support of bills that strengthen public education and improve the lives of our students, their families, and communities.” Yet Egan also said there’s still broad polarization in Congress; just nine House Republicans received an A grade, close to the eight who did so last Congress, for example.

More in that vein: 153 lawmakers got an F grade for the 1st session of the 116th Congress, which started in 2019, and 152 of those were Republicans (the one other lawmaker changed his affiliation from Republican to independent). And all 46 senators who got an F are Republicans.

So what are some other highlights from the NEA’s grades? Check out the charts below for some of these for U.S. senators, the group we’ll stick to for the sake of efficiency.

Because senators are graded on high-profile, high-pressure votes on nominees for the federal judiciary and top administration positions, the generally poor marks for Republicans may not be particularly surprising.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the chairman of the Senate education committee, received a “Friend of Education” award from the NEA in 2016, in recognition of his work shepherding the Every Student Succeeds Act over the finish line, and got an A grade for the Congress that year. But his grade slipped to an F in the 115th Congress, before rising to a C in the first session of this Congress.

The Republican who got the highest grade was Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who scored an A, the only Republican to do so. Next was Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, who scored a B. Collins and Murkowski voted against Betsy DeVos’ nomination for education secretary in 2017 and haven’t been big boosters of school choice during their Senate careers, so their relatively high grades aren’t a shock. Meanwhile, the four Republicans to get D grades are Sens. Jerry Moran of Kansas, Rob Portman of Ohio, Mitt Romney of Utah, and Dan Sullivan of Alaska.

Let’s jump briefly over to the House. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the top Republican on the House education committee, got the cold shoulder from the NEA with an F grade. However, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., the top Republican on the House subcommittee that deals with education spending, fared better with a C grade. Remember, lawmakers have increased appropriations for the U.S. Department of Education during President Donald Trump’s administration, despite Trump’s attempts to shrink the department’s budget; Cole hasn’t been a huge fan of those attempts.

Here’s some other criteria the NEA uses for its report card that don’t depend on key votes:

  • Cosponsoring bills critical to advancing NEA’s identified legislative priorities
  • Behind-the-scenes work to advance or impede NEA priority issues
  • Committee votes in support of or against NEA priorities
  • Accessibility of the member and staff in Washington DC to NEA staff and leaders
  • Accessibility and education advocacy in the member’s home state or district

Photo: National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García, middle, poses with teachers after a Phoenix #RedForEd rally in 2018. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

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