In almost every state, teachers are automatically signed up to have their dues money diverted to their unions’ political funds. But the facts show that when “paycheck protection” laws require unions to get permission from teachers before taking money for political purposes, teachers almost always say “no.”
When teachers were given the chance to opt out of paying for the political causes of education unions, they did — in droves. The number of teachers participating in Utah plunged from 68 percent to 6.8 percent, and the number of represented teachers contributing in Washington plummeted from 82 percent to 6 percent.
Predictably, union officials fight tooth and nail against “paycheck protection” laws that give teachers a real choice about how their money is spent.
—Robert Chanin, former NEA general counsel
It is well-recognized that if you take away the mechanism of payroll deduction you won’t collect a penny from these people, and it has nothing to do with voluntary or involuntary. I think it has a lot to do with the nature of the beast, and the beasts who are our teachers.”
Money & Power
It’s well known that education unions are perennial political powerhouses, nationally and locally. In his groundbreaking study of teachers unions, Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools, Terry Moe argues that “by comparison to other interest groups, and certainly to those with a direct stake in public education—parents, taxpayers, even administrators — the teachers unions are unusually well equipped to wield power.” Consider:
Fortune magazine has consistently ranked the National Education Association in the top 15 of its Washington Power 25 list for influence in the nation’s capital.
Over the last 20 years, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has given more than $28 million in campaign contributions; the National Education Association (NEA) has given almost $31 million. That's almost $60 million, more than any other organization — but that's just the tip of the iceberg. At the state level, the AFT and NEA combined to spend an additional $61.8 million on candidates and expenditures for ballot initiatives in 2008 alone. Plus, teachers unions spend millions more on uncoordinated expenditures and get-out-the-vote efforts.
According to The Heritage Foundation, through July 2010, unions spent almost three times as much money on campaign ads as all corporations combined.
According to the Reason Foundation, the California Teachers Association has spent more than $200 million on ballot initiatives, candidates for state and local office, and lobbying. They used this money not only to argue against education reforms, but also to defeat healthcare reform measures and to defeat bills which would have prevented voter fraud.
In retaliation for Washington, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty's commitment to education reform — and in an effort to remove the effective school chancellor, Michelle Rhee, who weakened tenure and got rid of bad teachers — the American Federation of Teachers dumped more than a million dollars into the 2010 Democratic Mayoral primary between Fenty and Vincent Gray.
Colorado saw sweeping education reforms come to the state in the form of weakened tenure and increased merit pay. How did the Colorado Education Association respond? By pumping almost a million dollars into the state. The money went almost exclusively to Democratic candidates and Democrat-backed proposals and ballot initiatives.
The head of the Chicago Teachers Union had this warning to any mayoral candidate in the 2011 mayor's race who didn't toe the teacher's line: "I think the opportunity is to throw the weight of 30,000 members and their families and students and teachers. I mean, we're looking at maybe 800,000 people we could affect on some level."
Due to their massive base, and the massive dues that they charge, teachers unions can both mobilize voters and spend huge sums of money to defeat ballot initiatives and candidates that they don't like. If you've ever wondered why education reform is slow in the offing, now you know: Politicians have real reason to fear crossing the unions. As Terry Moe put it, "when all is said and done, the power of the unions to block change is the single most important thing that anyone needs to know about the politics of American education."
Unions Don’t Reflect Members’ Politics
The officials who wield teachers unions' enormous political clout do so at the expense of their members, who frequently disagree with union bosses' political agendas.
Consider the numbers above: Of the almost $60 million in campaign contributions distributed by the NEA and the AFT, more than $56 million went to Democrats. That means that roughly 95 percent of the unions' money went toward Democratic candidates.
Yet, it's hard to believe that 19 out of 20 teachers are Democrats.
Indeed, looking at polling data from the 2003 National Education Study, only 51 percent of teachers who are also union members identify as Democrats. The rest identify as Republicans (25 percent) or Independents (24 percent). Republicans who join unions typically feel alienated from the organization and its political giving; a Harris Interactive poll from 2003 showed that 83 percent of Republican teachers union members felt that the union was more liberal than they were.
The Education Intelligence Agency obtained results of a massive internal survey of NEA membership and leadership, issuing a report in October 2005 titled "The NEA Pyramid: The View Changes As You Rise to the Top of the Nation's Largest Union." The report noted: "The larger a local affiliate is, the less likely the local affiliate president will reflect the demographics, philosophies and tendencies of his or her constituent members." That certainly describes the NEA and AFT at the national level.
The NEA has long known that its political expenditures don't reflect the views of its members. According to the NEA's own "Status of the American Public School Teacher 2000-2001," only 45 percent of public school teachers are Democrats. Two internal surveys of NEA members, conducted in 1980 and obtained by the Public Service Research Foundation, showed a serious gap between spending and results:
As many members voted for Ronald Reagan (44%) as did for Jimmy Carter (44%)
More NEA members identified themselves as conservatives (27%) than liberals (21%)
A large number — 29% — said they did "not trust" the union