Teaching Profession

Teachers’ Unions Come on Strong in State-Level Races

By Sean Cavanagh — October 05, 2010 8 min read
California Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown greets his Republican rival, Meg Whitman, at a Sept. 28 debate. Education funding is a top issue in California.

Teachers’ unions are playing a strong role in state elections this fall, providing candidates across the country with grassroots support, endorsements, and millions of dollars in campaign contributions—the vast majority of that money flowing to Democrats.

Republicans are widely expected to make major gains in the 2010 congressional elections, and they appear poised to pick up seats in many competitive state races for governor and other offices.

Unions have voiced concerns about some aspects of the Obama administration’s national education agenda over the past two years. Yet at the state level, Democrats are receiving considerable support from the political arms of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association and the 1.5 million-member American Federation of Teachers, as they have in past campaigns, heading into the final push before the Nov. 2 general elections.

Election Landscape

Thirty-seven governors’ races and seven state superintendents’ contests will be decided this fall as will more than 6,000 state legislative seats.

The unions’ political organizations and employees have devoted a combined $8.2 million to Democratic candidates and party committees at the state level so far during the 2010 election cycle, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonpartisan campaign-finance-research organization based in Helena, Mont. By comparison, just $938,000 in donations has flowed to GOP candidates and committees so far, according to institute data compiled through Sept. 27.

Perhaps not surprisingly, at a time when states are facing major budget crises, many union affiliates are backing candidates the organizations believe will fight to protect school funding.

The weak economy “affects members and their jobs. It affects them personally,” said Karen M. White, the political director of the NEA.

“Education is typically a locally based decision,” she said. “Governors are going to be absolutely critical decisionmakers on education.”

California Showdown

Education spending has emerged as a big issue in California, a state that has faced continual budget crises in recent years.

Both the 325,000-member California Teachers Association, an NEA affiliate, and the 120,000-member California Federation of Teachers, an AFT affiliate, have thrown their support behind the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, state Attorney General Jerry Brown.

The CTA recently feuded with Mr. Brown’s opponent, Republican Meg Whitman, over her pledge to cut government spending by $15 billion. Last month, a CTA television advertisement claimed that Ms. Whitman’s spending cuts would result in $7 billion in reductions for schools. Ms. Whitman’s campaign called the ad “a lie” and asked broadcasters to take it off the air. The union eventually made what it described as “minor changes” to its content, though it defended its overall message.

CTA President David A. Sanchez said the union has concerns about several of the education proposals put forward by Ms. Whitman, a former chief executive officer for eBay, the online auction and shopping company. The CTA objects, for instance, to her plan to assign schools letter grades, from A to F, based on their performance. The union fears it will lead to more “pointing of fingers” at struggling schools, Mr. Sanchez said. (Ms. Whitman’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.)

This year, education spending is hugely important to the CTA’s members, Mr. Sanchez said. He believes the record of Mr. Brown in public office—he served as California’s governor from 1975 to 1983—has shown that he can work with Democratic and Republican state lawmakers to craft budgets that protect education.

“There’s just not much more you can take from schools,” Mr. Sanchez argued. “There’s no more meat on the bone. It’s just amputation.”

The political arms of the teachers’ unions have traditionally taken a strong interest in state elections, campaign records show.

The NEA was the largest single provider of political cash at the state and federal levels during the 2007-2008 election cycle, contributing a combined $56.5 million, according to data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan campaign-finance-research organization in Washington, and by the National Institute on Money in State Politics. The CRP notes that the data on federal money are not based on donations from the organizations themselves, but rather from the unions’ political action committees, the unions’ employees, and the employees’ immediate family members.

Of that combined state and federal money, the overwhelming amount, $53.8 million, went to state-level candidates, political parties, and ballot measures, rather than to federal candidates and national parties. Similarly, of the $12.3 million contributed by the AFT’s political organizations and employees that cycle, $9.3 million flowed into the states, the CRP and institute reported.

Separate data compiled by the institute for the 2010 election cycle shows that, at the state level alone, the NEA and its PACs, its subsidiaries, and the union’s employees have through Sept. 27 contributed $13.8 million to candidates and issues. The AFT and its PACs, its subsidiaries, and the union’s employees have given roughly $3.5 million toward state candidates and causes, according to the institute. NEA officials said some of their state-focused donations come from a fund devoted specifically to ballot measures and legislative issues, which is not a PAC.

As has been the case in past election cycles, both unions’ political arms and employees so far have spent considerable sums—the NEA $6.9 million, the AFT $1.2 million—on state ballot measures in the 2010 cycle, the institute reports. One ballot measure that has drawn both the CTA’s and cft’s support this fall is California’s Proposition 25, which would lower the legislative margin needed to pass state budgets to a simple majority from a two-thirds majority. The two-thirds threshold forces the legislature to cater to the demands of a handful of lawmakers late in the process, the cft argues, a process that often hurts schools in the budget.

Partisan Patterns

State elections are playing out as some teachers’-union members have voiced concerns about issues such as the Obama administration’s backing of pay-for-performance plans for teachers and of charter schools. But a number of union officials said they have not seen any dampening of support for Democratic candidates.

“We’ve gotten out and told our members, if you don’t get involved in this election, the alternative is much worse,” said Mr. Sanchez, of the California Teachers Association.

Ms. White, of the national NEA, also said she saw no slackening in enthusiasm this election season. At least 59,000 union members have volunteered across the country this fall, a number that topped NEA projections and could grow by 50 percent between now and the general election, she predicted.

Across the country, contributions from the NEA and AFT, their subsidiaries, and their employees to Democrats exceed those to Republicans by more than an 8-to-1 ratio, according to institute records. Yet some state-level affiliates are encouraging their members to back GOP candidates this fall, in both state and closely watched federal campaigns.

In Nebraska, Republican Gov. Dave Heineman is being supported by the Nebraska State Education Association. The governor, who is opposed by Democrat Mike Meister, has won the union’s trust by urging local school district officials to increase teacher salaries and by supporting improved retirement benefits for teachers, among other positions, said Jess Wolf, the president of the affiliate.

“He’s been very open to having discussions with us on almost any issue,” Mr. Wolf said. “We’ve had more access to him than any other governor.”

In Alaska, the state’s 13,000-member NEA affiliate is backing Democrat Ethan Berkowitz in the governor’s race against incumbent Republican Sean Parnell. But it is also recommending incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski in her race for the U.S. Senate over Republican nominee Joe Miller and Democrat Scott McAdams. Mr. Miller defeated Ms. Murkowski in the GOP primary, but the senator has since launched a write-in campaign for the general election.

The union credits Ms. Murkowskifor working to have the state’s rural schools treated fairly under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, NEA-Alaska president Barb Angaiak said.

Florida Complexity

Another union stepping outside the usual party affiliations is the Florida Education Association, a 140,000-member affiliate of both the AFT and the NEA. In the Florida governor’s race, the union is recommending Democrat Alex Sink over Republican Rick Scott. But in the U.S. Senate campaign, it is backing both Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running as an independent, and Democrat Kendrick Meek over Republican Marco Rubio.

Mr. Crist’s decision earlier this year to veto a controversial merit-pay measure, Senate Bill 6, “had a lot to do” with the union’s backing for him as well as for Mr.Meek, said FEA spokesman Mark Pudlow.

In the District of Columbia, the local affiliate of the AFT endorsed council Chairman Vincent C. Gray in the Sept. 14 Democratic mayoral primary, in which he defeated incumbent Adrian M. Fenty. Mayor Fenty’s handpicked schools chancellor, Michelle A. Rhee, has battled the union over performance pay and teacher dismissals. (“Rhee Reflects on Her Stormy Tenure in D.C.,” Sept. 22, 2010.)

The publication Politico reported that the AFT’s political arm contributed $1 million to a labor-backed independent-expenditure campaign to defeat Mr. Fenty, though the union would not confirm or deny that. Mr. Gray is widely expected to win the Nov. 2 general election in the overwhelmingly Democratic city.

Like the NEA, the AFT has found that its members are focused on the economy and its impact on schools, said John M. Ost, the union’s political director. He said the AFT is running “member-to-member” campaigns in at least 30 states this election season. Organizing teachers over the summer is difficult, but the union’s campaign activity has ramped up more recently as members have become easier to reach, Mr. Ost said.

At the same time, both he and Ms. White, of the NEA, agreed that the poor economy and the financial pressures it has created make it more difficult for individual teachers to work the campaign trail and get to know the candidates.

“Times are tough for folks, and our [members] are not exempt from that,” Mr. Ost said. In their “personal lives, family lives, … people have a lot going on,” he said.

The challenge in that environment, Mr. Ost said, is “trying to find the time to explain issues.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 06, 2010 edition of Education Week as Teachers’ Unions Come on Strong in State-Level Races

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