Teachers’ Unions to Spend More Than Ever in State, Local Elections

By Lauren Camera — October 22, 2014 14 min read
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Deep-pocketed teachers’ unions, hoping to affect education policy at the state and local levels, are expecting to pour more money into those campaigns in the 2014 midterm elections than ever before.

With the express mission of unseating Republican governors and flipping control of conservative state legislatures—legacies of the GOP tide in 2010—the two national unions, in particular, are taking a page out of the playbook of some newer and smaller education advocacy groups: Focus on down-ballot candidates and work up to the top ticket.

Spending on state races isn’t new for the teachers’ unions, which are still putting millions of dollars into federal races, particularly the slew of U.S. Senate contests expected to decide control of that chamber.

But the National Education Association, which plans to spend about $40 million during this election cycle, is aiming to direct a record-setting 70 percent of that amount—or $28 million—to state and local races. The American Federation of Teachers, which is expected to spend about $20 million, has the same strategy, though it hasn’t made public exactly what proportion is being directed to state vs. federal races.

“We’re doubling down on gubernatorial and down-ballot races this year,” said President Randi Weingarten of the 1.6 million-member AFT. “What’s happening in communities across the country is what’s driving this election. We know these races need a lot more of our focus.”

Meanwhile, some of the most influential advocacy groups—including Democrats for Education Reform, Stand for Children, and StudentsFirst—have much smaller coffers. Their spending typically supports candidates who back education policies that run afoul of the unions, such as evaluation and pay compensation systems based in part on student test scores; alternative models of teacher certification; and an increase in charter schools.

The Big Picture

According to the most recent Federal Election Commission election-spending filings, the NEA Advocacy Fund, the teachers’ union super-PAC, or political action committee, had spent $12.5 million through Sept. 30, significantly more than its entire 2012 election cycle spending, which totaled $9.1 million through Dec. 31 of that year.

The super-PAC also had grown its coffers to $12.8 million through end of September, already eclipsing its 2012 presidential-election war chest, which totaled $9.3 million for that year.

The figures also dwarf those from the last midterm-election cycle, when super-PACs—which finance independent expenditures and issue-based ads—first came into play. In 2010, the NEA fund’s disbursements totaled $4.9 million, including some from cash already in hand, and its receipts totaled $3.3 million.

The 3 million-member union’s second political action committee, the NEA Fund for Children and Public Education, differs from its super-PAC in that it can donate directly to candidates and political parties and is funded primarily through voluntary donations, not dues.

The Fund for Children and Public Education had spent $2.4 million through Sept. 30 and raised $4.3 million. That’s down slightly from 2012, when it had raised $5 million and spent $4.8 million by mid-October of that year.

See Also

Spending by the AFT’s political action committee—known as its Committee on Political Education, or COPE—mirrors that of the last two election cycles. Through Sept. 30 (the group files monthly reports), it had spent $9 million and raised $9.4 million, whereas at this juncture in 2012, the group had spent $9.3 million and raised $11.5 million.

Like the NEA, the AFT has an additional political-funding organization, the Solidarity Fund, which is registered as a 527 organization (the number refers to a section of the tax code) and files its spending reports through the Internal Revenue Service, not the FEC.

Through the end of September, according to the most recent report, the Solidarity Fund had spent $9.7 million and raised $9.8 million. Those figures are up from those of the last presidential-election cycle, when the fund spent a total of $1.1 million and raised $1.1 million.

Both national teachers’ unions also engage in other political activities that do not require them to spend from those political action committees, such as lobbying, communicating directly with members, and spending on ballot initiatives. Those figures—which need not be reported—combined with their reported spending to the FEC and IRS, are expected to total some $40 million for the NEA and $20 million for the AFT.

Other education advocacy organizations have much smaller bank accounts and, accordingly, have less to spend.

Democrats for Education Reform, or DFER, for example, had spent a little more than $91,000 and taken in a little more than $99,000 through the end of September, according to its most recent FEC filings.

Those numbers already surpass its disbursements and receipts for the presidential-election cycle, when the group, which operates in 13 states, spent a total of $52,000 and raised $54,000. However, this year’s figures are dwarfed by its spending during the 2010 election cycle, when it spent and raised more than $180,000.

As with the union PACs, the Democrats for Education Reform’s national PAC’s FEC filings show its spending on federal races, gubernatorial races, and to other PACs that have a variety of goals, including affecting state legislative races. However, the filings don’t capture spending from its various state affiliates, which file at the state level. Overall, figures from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, an independent nonprofit based in Helena, Mont., that tracks state election spending, show that the organization has spent about $175,000 so far this election cycle.

Groups like StudentsFirst and Stand for Children file their spending at the state level, since they participate specifically in local and state legislative campaigns. But figures from the National Institute on Money in State Politics show that spending is slightly down this election cycle for both groups, compared with the last cycle.

Stand for Children, which is active in 11 states, had spent a little more than $900,000 through mid-October, compared with a total of $1.5 million during the 2012 election cycle and a little over $800,000 during the 2010 midterm elections.

StudentsFirst flooded the 2012 election cycle with more than $4.2 million, but so far this cycle, it’s spent less than $400,000, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. However, including direct spending and spending by its various state affiliates, that number balloons to $1.2 million, according to the organization itself.

State-Level Footprint

For the unions, this year’s spending focus is carefully chosen.

“This is really more than ever before,” said Karen White, the political director for the NEA, which is the nation’s largest union as well as its largest teachers’ union.

“Since the 2010 election, we have been building back against the right-wing and tea party governors and officeholders that got elected at the local and state level,” she said. “This year, we have a plethora of gubernatorial and down-ballot races that’s been the biggest [area] of our focus.”

The NEA Advocacy Fund had given $2.9 million through the end of September to the Democratic Governors Association, hoping to affect contests in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and other states where Republican governors have cut education aid or rolled back the collective bargaining rights of teachers’ unions.

The Advocacy Fund specifically directed $580,000 to PA Families First, whose mission is to oust Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican who made significant cuts to public education spending during his first three years in office. The AFT also slammed Gov. Corbett, most recently with a six-figure radio ad buy in the Philadelphia media market that criticizes the governor for cuts to education and for meddling in teacher contract negotiations in the Philadelphia school system. The AFT’s political action committee also gave $450,000 through Sept. 30 to Tom Wolf for Governor campaign organization, to support Mr. Corbett’s Democratic challenger.

The NEA through Sept. 30 had pushed $200,000 to Michigan for All in an effort to unseat Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who has overseen significant cuts to school budgets and restricted union bargaining rights.

The union is also unleashing an intense boots-on-the-ground effort in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker similarly has slashed education funding and pushed through legislation that curtailed union protections.

So far the union’s state affiliate has handed out more than 40,000 candidate-bio fliers, mailed side-by-side candidate comparisons to 45,000 Wisconsin households, organized a 15,000-member phone bank, and sent early absentee-ballot request forms, including a postage-paid envelope, to 15,000 members considered “drop-off” voters, those who tend not to vote in non-presidential elections.

Those efforts, the NEA believes, have affected the Wisconsin contest in favor of Democratic challenger Mary Burke. Polling from Marquette University had the race tied as of Oct. 12.

In Florida, meanwhile, the AFT as of Sept. 30 had given $500,000 to the Charlie Crist for Florida organization, backing the former governor, a Republican-turned-Democrat who is hoping to unseat the GOP incumbent, Gov. Rick Scott.

The NEA’s super-PAC, as of Sept. 30, had sent $715,000 to Kentucky Family Values, which mainly plays in the Bluegrass State legislative races, and more than $600,000 to Patriot Majority, which has conducted independent political communications for mayoral, gubernatorial, and state legislative races in more than 30 states.

“Education is primarily funded at the local and state level,” Ms. White of the NEA noted. “That’s really the reason we’re engaged at that level.”

In California, the AFT’s political action committee, as of Sept. 30, had directed $125,000 to back incumbent Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, who faces challenger Marshall Tuck in a tight, nonpartisan race for state chief.

One of the biggest points of contention in that race is a California judge’s June ruling in Vergara v. California that the state’s laws governing teacher tenure and due process violated the constitutional rights of the neediest children. Mr. Tuck has sided with the Vergara plaintiffs, while Mr. Torlakson has joined Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, and the California Teachers Association in appealing the case.

In certain states’ down-ballot races, the NEA is making a concerted effort to back candidates who support state laws that would make it easier and more convenient to vote. Those contenders include Felecia Rotellini for Arizona’s attorney general, Hector Balderas for New Mexico’s attorney general, and Maggie Toulouse Oliver for New Mexico’s secretary of state. The move is part of a larger, two-year effort by the NEA to drive up voter participation among Hispanics in Arizona.

Both unions are spending on local and state school board races and get-out-the-vote efforts, though that money is harder to track.

The NEA, for example, is organizing letter drives among its teacher members, who plan to send out more than 60,000 hand-written letters to voters in Wisconsin highlighting what the union sees as the significance of such elections for students.

“In school board races, despite high importance for kids and families, name recognition is low,” said Ms. Weingarten of the AFT. “Even a little information goes a long way. Voters are looking for information, especially as they work down the ballot.”

Focused Approach

Just because other advocacy groups in education have smaller coffers, it doesn’t mean they’re less influential. In fact, some newer groups on the scene have become experts at influencing policy by focusing their spending on state legislatures, school boards, superintendent races, and various ballot initiatives.

“We cannot outspend them,” said Tim Melton, the national legislative director for Sacramento, Calif.-based StudentsFirst, said of the teachers’ unions. “We have to win with boots on the ground and proper messaging.”

StudentsFirst, which has 13 state-level affiliates, lobbies elected officials to end seniority-based layoffs for teachers and to establish stronger mayoral and state control over schools, among other priorities.

Much of StudentsFirst’s spending is directed at states it sees as ripe for changes. In the 2012 election cycle, it spent big in states like California, Georgia, and Michigan with education-related initiatives on the ballot or education chief positions up for grabs.

With relatively few education-focused ballot measures this election cycle, the group is playing in about 100 state House and Senate races over 10 states, Mr. Melton said, and invested heavily during primary races.

In Ohio, for example, StudentsFirst spent big on the primaries for state House incumbents John Barnes, a Republican, and Bill Patmon, a Democrat.

They were both important proponents of Republican Gov. John Kasich’s “Cleveland Plan,” a package of state laws that, among other provisions, makes it easier for administrators to fire low-performing teachers and principals, mandates performance pay for teachers and principals, and allows charters to tap local property-tax proceeds.

“We’re looking to protect champions and people who have taken tough votes,” said Mr. Melton.

StudentsFirst has poured resources into Nevada, which did not hold a legislative session this year. According to the National Institute on Money and State Politics, as of Sept. 15, the group had given to a dozen races, including to five Republicans and seven Democrats, all incumbents, and has spent $67,000 in total.

StudentsFirst also has directed a large chunk of its spending to state races in Georgia, where a range of contentious K-12 issues, including the Common Core State Standards, new assessments, and the expansion of charter schools, will likely come into play next year.

Democrats for Education Reform, meanwhile, focused a lot of its spending on New York state. As of Sept. 15, according to the National Institute on Money and State Politics, DFER had directed $40,000 to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who is seeking a second term. Gov. Cuomo has overseen the implementation of the common core and new teacher evaluations based in part on student test scores, and has also pushed for an increase in charter schools.

The group also contributed to 10 New York state legislative candidates, including $17,000 to incumbent Democratic state Sen. Jeffrey Klein. He heads the Independent Democratic Conference, a five-member panel that jointly runs the Senate with the Republicans, and has been accused by state unions of not fairly representing the interests of the rest of his caucus.

Stand for Children zeroed in on state House races in Illinois, which is in the midst of overhauling the school system’s funding mechanism and will likely also tackle early-childhood legislation next year. The group has contributed to more than 50 House races, including nine to which it had given more than $10,000 as of Sept. 15, according to the National Institute on Money and State Politics.

Big winners included incumbent Democratic Rep. Christian Mitchell, who has gotten $70,000, and Peter Breen, a Republican running for an open seat who has received more than $31,000 from the group. Both candidates support overhauling the state’s pension system and fought through difficult primaries against challengers whose campaigns were flush with funding from teachers’ unions.

“One of the biggest challenges facing public education is the lack of sustained effective leadership in school districts,” said Jonah Edelman, CEO of Stand for Children.

For that reason, Mr. Edelman said, Stand for Children has been particularly active in the local school board races in Indianapolis public schools.

“They have a very strong superintendent [Lewis Ferebee] who has done very well in his early tenure and we feel that it’s important to elect board members there who play an appropriate oversight role and have the vision and courage to support the progress needed in Indianapolis public schools,” Mr. Edelman said.

As for state legislative races, Mr. Edelman noted that Stand for Children poured a significant amount into the Arizona primary races.

“We were able to protect all the incumbents who support common core in their primary races,” Mr. Edelman said. “That’s tremendously important. You have to be effective in supporting elected officials who do the right things for students.”

From Now Until Election Day

Both the AFT’s Ms. Weingarten and NEA President Lily Eskelsen García will be on the road up until the Nov. 4 elections, stumping with candidates and their other politically aligned organizations in key states.

Over the next few weeks, Ms. García is expected to take part in rallies, phone-bank operations, and canvassing in Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Maine.

Ms. Weingarten recently flew to Alaska, where she stumped for incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, who’s trailing Republican challenger Dan Sullivan. Ms. Garcia was in Michigan and Wisconsin, supporting Democratic gubernatorial candidates Mark Schauer and Mary Burke, respectively.

The NEA also plans to continue running TV ads in support of gubernatorial and U.S. Senate candidates through Election Day in media markets in Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

And leading up to Election Day, StudentsFirst is planning several phone-bank efforts and coordinated door knocking in support of various candidates.

“Showing up is something that’s a huge benefit,” Mr. Melton said. “The more that groups like us and other education reform organizations give cover and comfort to politicians willing to step up and do what’s best for kids, the more we’ll be able to impact these elections.”

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Intern Madeline Will contributed to this story.
A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2014 edition of Education Week as Union Cash Playing Big in Key Races


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