Teaching Profession

Fact-Checking Romney’s Teacher Claims

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 23, 2012 3 min read
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Republican Presidential presumptive nominee Mitt Romney’s first major education policy stump speech was heavy on criticism of teachers’ unions, but light overall on the details of how he’d revamp federal teacher-quality spending.

My colleagues at Politics K-12 have a great overview that you should be sure to check out. In the meantime, let’s fact-check some of Romney’s claims in his speech.

• “There are currently 82 programs in 10 agencies that spend $4 billion on teacher quality. As president, I will consolidate these programs, and block grant them to states that adopt innovative policies. For example, states will be rewarded if they regularly evaluate teachers for their effectiveness and compensate the best teachers for their success.”

The figure of 82 teacher-quality programs comes right out of this Government Accountability Office report, but the rest of the proposal is somewhat confusing. For one, more than half of the $4 billion figure is in the $2.5 billion Title II-A state grants, which basically already are a block grant. As for consolidating programs, the Obama administration has already proposed this a number of years running, but not gotten anywhere with it. Those consolidations were envisioned as competitive grants—not a fill-out-the-paperwork-and-get-your-cash block grant.

• Romney dragged out a quote from the American Federation of Teachers’ Al Shanker, in which the late labor leader purportedly said, “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of children.”

The problem with this is that Shanker may never have actually said it. Debates continue to rage about whether this quote is apocryphal or just badly documented.

• “And our job keeps getting harder because the unions wield outsized influence in elections and campaigns. ... Annually, many teachers are forced to pay almost $1,000 in union dues. The two major teachers’ unions take in $600 million each year. That’s more revenue than both of the political parties combined. In 2008, the National Education Association spent more money on campaigns than any other organization in the country. And 90% of those funds went to Democrats.”

Where to start. The unions are most certainly among the biggest campaign spenders and are still probably the largest in K-12 education. But the statement confuses two things: dues and campaign dollars. Until 2010, dues money could be used for lobbying but not campaigns; unions had to keep campaign cash strictly segregated in a PAC, which members donated to voluntarily. (The “voluntary” nature of these donations, of course, can certainly be contested. As Mike Antonucci of Intercepts aptly pointed out, in states like California, PAC donations can come out of your paycheck unless you fill out often jargon-laden paperwork correctly.)

This has changed somewhat, because campaign-finance rulings now permit unions—and corporations—to spend from their dues-funded general treasuries on independent expenditures, such as campaign advertising, as long as they are not officially coordinated with candidates.

At the federal level, it was 48th in the list of top donors that year, far below the American Federation of Teachers, which was No. 19. (Goldman Sachs was No. 2 that year and the realtors’ and bankers’ association were also in the Top 10.) It’s possible Romney was talking about state spending, and I will update this post once I can access the database of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, which seems to be down at the moment.

UPDATED, 5:10 p.m. Romney’s claim that the NEA is the largest spender seems to pass muster when state level spending is taken into account. NEA and affiliates topped the list of donors in 2007-08 (the realtors’ association was No. 8). Keep in mind, though, that this is largely because of its ballot-initiative expenditures. Only 35 percent of its spending overall was on candidate races, or about $19 million. (When you look at it from this perspective, it spent about the same as the realtors’ association.)

• “So, President Obama has been unable to stand up to union bosses—and unwilling to stand up for kids.”

The campaign cites the administration’s bids to shutter the District of Columbia’s Opportunity Scholarships Program, which the unions pushed hard on, as evidence that it’s kowtowing to the unions. But at the same time, the Obama administration’s push to open charter schools and evaluate teachers partly on student-achievement gains have earned the administration some fairly well-publicized rebukes from the unions and raised some good questions about how many teachers are going to want to volunteer on his behalf once the campaign ground game gets started.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.