Last week, Dropout Nation perused the American Federation of Teachers’ 2013-2014 financial filing with the U.S. Department of Labor and have revealed the millions the union is spending on preserving its influence as well as in opposing systemic reform. As you would expect, traditionalists, along with AFT President Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten, attempted to disregard what is clear from the data; Weingarten herself even tried to argue that she didn’t earn $557,875 last fiscal year. But again, this isn’t shocking; Weingarten even tries to claim that she is a veteran teacher even though she only spent 10 months on the job (over a period of a six years as a part-timer) before becoming an AFT executive.
But as your editor has consistently pointed out, the AFT spends big to oppose systemic reform. Especially when those efforts will cost it both money and influence. And this can be seen today in Philadelphia, where the union’s Philadelphia and Pennsylvania units are battling against efforts to address the decades of dealmaking with the City of Brotherly Love’s district at the heart of its fiscal morass.
Earlier today, the AFT and its Pennsylvania affiliate fired off a press release blasting the School District of Philadelphia and the state commission that controls it for having “amped up a war on teachers”. How? By moving to cancel the collective bargaining agreement the district has with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the AFT’s unit there, and reducing the generous healthcare benefits it provides to the union’s rank-and-file. Though the contract has been expired since last year — and the district has had free rein (as it can given the Keystone State’s restrictive state laws governing most aspects of how it manages its teachers) to do what it must to address its woes — PFT and its parent union insist that the deal remains in force. This includes basing layoffs on matters other than seniority as normally required under state law.
Thanks to move, Philadelphia will continue with a series of efforts that began last year with a move to effectively end near-lifetime employment for teachers in the district’s employ. The move would also allow the district to deal with its high teacher benefit costs. Thanks to a series of deals Philadelphia struck with the AFT local, along with increases in pension contributions, led to a 53 percent increase in spending on teachers’ benefits between 2002-2002 and 2011-2012, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau; benefits accounted for 27 cents of every dollar spent on teacher salaries in 2012, versus 21 cents a decade earlier. The district estimates that the cost-cutting will save it $246 million (including federal funds) over the next four years.
Given that Philadelphia has also been on a capital spending spree that has denied the reality that fewer kids are attending its school (as well as engaging in senseless financial engineering through the use of interest rate swaps related to its building boom), just focusing on teacher benefit costs isn’t enough. But considering that the AFT has also been an obstacle to the district’s efforts to provide high-quality education to kids in its care, canceling the collective bargaining doesn’t hurt. It even puts the onus on the district to actually address its fiscal and academic woes without being able to blame AFT intransigence.
But what may be good for Philadelphia (and for taxpayers and children) isn’t exactly welcomed by the AFT. After all, any cuts in healthcare benefits (or requirements for teachers to contribute more to those costs) strike at the heart of the grand bargain struck decades ago by the union with its rank-and-file members to insulate them from the arrangements typically found in the private sector. It’s hard for PFT, much less AFT, to justify forcibly collecting dues from teachers when it offers nothing to them. And given the district’s move last year to shut down 23 half-empty schools, as well as the layoff of 2,151 employees, PFT has fewer dues-paying members on the roster. The AFT local had 27,543 rank-and-file members in 2013-2014, eight percent fewer than in the previous fiscal year.
So the AFT is spending big to help its local out. It subsidized PFT to the tune of $1.5 million in 2013-2014; that’s a 10-fold increase from the $140,392 the union handed out to the unit in the previous year. Given that the PFT only generated $2.4 million in 2013-2014, the AFT’s subsidies are especially helpful for the local’s efforts to beat back the district’s moves. The AFT is also spending heavily on events in the city geared toward defending the local’s influence and coffers. This includes holding three meetings (including two so-called community events) at the ritzy Sheraton Philadelphia Downtown at the cost of $142,129 as well as dropping $272,715 at the rather nice Sonesta Philadelphia hotel to cover “member related expenses”.
Meanwhile the AFT is helping out PFT in another way: Co-opting progressive groups who are aiding the union in beating back reform. As Dropout Nation reported last week, the AFT poured $49,120 to ACTION United, the so-called grassroots group in Philadelphia which has served as an ally of its Philadelphia local in its efforts against the financially-strapped district to keep it from closing half-empty schools and overhaul how it compensates teachers. The union also contributed $20,000 to Philadelphia Student Union, whose board includes Anissa Weinraub, a PFT union leader, as well as Phil Wider of the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative, a signatory on an AFT statement issued as part of its Reclaim the Promise effort to defend the traditionalist policies that sustain it.
The AFT also contributed $60,000 to Youth United for Change, another ally of the union’s Philadelphia local in opposing reform efforts in the city. Two years ago, it teamed up with the Philadelphia Student Union on a joint letter opposing one of the district’s stillborn plans to overhaul its operations. The group also managed to get Weingarten to grace them with her presence at an awards ceremony it hosted last year.
Altogether, the AFT spent $2 million in 2013-2014 on preserving its declining influence in Philadelphia. That would be a really nice shopping trip at the old Wanamaker department store (now Macy’s) in the heart of the city’s downtown. To put this into perspective: The union poured just as much money into opposing reform-minded governors and efforts in several Midwestern states, while spending considerably less than that in Chicago (where it can count on its notoriously-bellicose local there to do the heavy lifting).
Based on the Philadelphia district’s move today — along with the decision by the city council last month to reject PFT’s effort to place a question on November’s ballot asking for support to end the state’s control of the district — the AFT would have been better off spending that money elsewhere. Particularly for teachers forced to pay into the union’s coffers, that’s $2 million that wasn’t used to provide them with courses on using data in improving student achievement. For the teaching profession the AFT claims devotion, that’s $2 million not used for for launching an alternative teacher preparation program that could bring talented collegians and mid-career professionals into teaching. And for kids, that’s $2 milllion that doesn’t help them in any way whatsoever.
But the AFT’s efforts in the Keystone State aren’t limited to the Philadelphia alone. There’s also the rest of the state, especially the state capital of Harrisburg, where the union’s affiliate, AFT Pennsylvania, has been battling Gov. Tom Corbett’s oft-unsuccessful (and usually lackluster) efforts on the reform front. This includes his push to expand school choice as well as the now-stillborn plan to address the School Employees’ Retirement System’s virtual insolvency of $37 billion (or 27 percent more than the pension officially reports).
The AFT subsidized the Keystone State unit (including its solidarity fund) to the tune of $499,661 in 2013-2014, $42,074 more than in the previous fiscal year. Given Corbett’s struggles to get his fellow Republicans controlling the Keystone State legislature to back his reform efforts, you can say that this was money well spent for its goals of keeping itself in business. For high-quality teachers and kids? Not so much.
So when AFT officials argue that they don’t have the money needed to challenge reformers and are devoted to helping kids succeed, point to what it is doing in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. Because they aren’t admitting reality.
AFT President Randi Weingarten and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers boss Jerry Jordan. Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Inquirer.