Your editor would like to spend less time on how the American Federation of Teachers’ spends its money to preserve its declining influence on education policymaking. But the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union keeps giving me more fodder — especially when it comes to Philadelphia, which has become an keystone in its efforts against systemic reform. Today, AFT announced that it made a “six-figure radio ad buy” in Philadelphia focused on whipping up indignation over last week’s move by the traditional school district to cancel its collective bargaining agreement with the union’s City of Brotherly Love local. This spend comes on top of the $2 million AFT spent in 2013-2014 on behalf of its local. [The union will hold a protest tomorrow.]
As you would expect, the ad isn’t focused on the fact that teachers are finally contributing something to their healthcare benefits (as professionals in the private sector must do) after years of getting it for free. After all, the AFT would then have to admit that the high costs of those benefits (which have increased by 53 percent between 2002-2002 and 2011-2012 thanks to deals the local struck with the district) is the reason why the School District of Philadelphia’s state-controlled board decided to not bother with renegotiating the already-expired collective bargaining agreement with the union’s Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in the first place.
Instead, the ad takes aim at Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett for reducing state subsidies to Philadelphia and other districts in the Keystone State by $1 billion. Which isn’t exactly so. For one, state subsidies for public schools (excluding funding for community colleges and higher ed aid) actually increased by 7.4 percent (from $9.3 billion to $10 billion between 2011-2012 and 2013-2014), according to state budget data. [This, by the way, doesn’t include the additional $300 million that will be spent in 2014-2015 under the recently-enacted budget.] In fact, state spending for education increased by 38 percent between 2002-2003 and 2011-2012, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Chances are that AFT is pointing to the lost dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which provided an additional $1 billion in subsidies in 2010-2011 alone. But those were temporary funds, and therefore, were unlikely to be picked up by the state once the feds turned off the tap.
Many — especially school choice activists and Parent Power advocates fighting Pennsylvania’s Zip Code Education laws –can rightfully argue that the state should take over full funding of education and the reliance on local property tax dollars. But the AFT will never make that argument because it opens up the door for expanding choice, voucherizing school funding, and putting traditional districts from which the union draws its very existence out of business.
Philadelphia would be the only district that can make a case for losing out on additional state funding. But even that would be specious given that state subsidies increased by 38 percent between 2002-2003 and 2010-2011, before an 8.4 percent reduction in 2011-2012, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. [There’s also the fact that Pennsylvania provides 48 percent of Philly’s funding, which is higher than the 36 percent statewide average.] The district would have been able to withstand those reductions if not for its costly deals with the AFT local as well as a $1.5 billion building spree that ended up costing it plenty, both in terms of half-empty buildings that it would shut down last year as a result of enrollment declines (as well as a series of interest rate swaps that cost the district $72 million by 2011, according to a report by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.).
Certainly the AFT could make the case that Philadelphia has been fiscally feckless for quite some time. But doing so would then point to the union’s own role in the district’s spendthrift ways, including those very sweet healthcare benefits for which the union is fighting heartily. And in the process, admit its role in Philadelphia’s virtual insolvency.
But in buying the attack aid, AFT and its local has once again reminded reformers and others that the AFT is far more-concerned about defending traditional teacher compensation from which it benefits than about helping children succeed or the social justice for which they proclaim interest. More importantly, it is a reminder that it will spend plenty to advance those interests.
This can also be seen in the most-recent reports AFT and its units have submitted to Pennsylvania campaign finance officials. The political action committee for AFT’s Philly local, for example, has spent $252,476.25 so far this year, according to data from the Department of State; the PAC has $661,450.39 left in its coffers that AFT national can indirectly leverage on behalf of Democratic gubernatorial nominee (and Corbett opponent) Tom Wolf, who has expressed interest in handing back control of the Philadelphia district to a locally-elected board if he wins the top office next month. As for the PAC run by AFT Pennsylvania? It spent $30,000 so far this year, and has $9,075.24 left. But it may also end up getting a cash infusion from national before voters go to the polls.
Altogether, the AFT and its units has $670,525.63 that can be used to further its goals in Pennsylvania just in existing political action committees alone. This is less than the 57,772.52 on hand for Parents & Teachers for Putting Students First, the PAC controlled by reform outfit StudentsFirst; the $5,000 in cash remaining for American Federation for Children’s PAC in the Keystone State; and the $3,176.05 still available for Democrats for Education Reform. All three, by the way, spend a total of $180,335.88 (of which the StudentsFirst PAC accounted for $151,335.88).
As Dropout Nation Contributor Dmitri Mehlhorn pointed out earlier this month, reformers are still outgunned by the AFT as well as the National Education Association on the money front. And this is clear in Philly.