When it comes to opposing systemic reform in the nation’s big cities, the American Federation of Teachers will do it big. As Dropout Nation detailed two weeks ago in its reports on the Big Two teachers’ union’s most-recent financial disclosure to the U.S. Department of Labor, AFT will spend as much as it can on behalf of its locals in the municipalities that are the beachheads in the battle over the reform of American public education. Nowhere is this more true than in Chicago as well as the entire State of Illinois, where the union’s two affiliates, the Chicago Teachers Union and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, are fighting to stop efforts by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Prairie State Gov. Bruce Rauner to overhaul public education and address virtually-busted defined-benefit pensions.
As many of you readers already know by now, the AFT and its affiliates spent big opposing Emanuel’s successful re-election campaign earlier this year, and put down big dollars last year to stop Rauner’s ouster of Pat Quinn from the governor’s mansion. The union spent $1.4 million supporting the campaign of Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, who, in spite of Emanuel’s unpopularity, only managed to gain the support of two out of every five Second City voters. The union and its affiliates also tossed down $797,504 into Quinn’s unsuccessful re-election run, even after the now-former governor convinced legislators to pass Senate Bill 1, a modest series of changes to the state’s teacher pension that has since been struck down by the Prairie State’s high court.
But AFT’s big spending hasn’t been limited to Election Day — and for good reason. The last thing the union and its affiliates want is for the reforms undertaken in Chicago to be fully embraced, either in the rest of Illinois or the nation as a whole.
Over the past three decades, Chicago has become an epicenter of systemic reform thanks to the efforts of Emanuel and his predecessor, Richard M. Daley, who won control of Chicago’s traditional district. Certainly the district still remains a work in progress. But with the city’s high school graduation rate having increased from 39 percent to 66 percent between 2005 and 2013, and the percentage of fourth-graders reading Below Basic on the National Assessment of Educational Progress declining from 60 percent to 49 percent between 2003 and 2013, it is hard for anyone, much less Chicago Teachers’ Union’s bellicose President Karen Lewis, to argue that the reforms undertaken by Daley and continued by Emanuel haven’t worked out for children.
Meanwhile Emanuel and Daley have managed to succeed in spreading the message of reform in the rest of Illinois. Four years ago, Daley and his allies successfully convinced AFT’s state affiliate and the National Education Association’s branch in the Prairie State to back an overhaul of teacher evaluations that includes the use of objective student test score growth data in assessing teacher performance. Today, Emanuel has a strong backer of reform in Springfield in the form of Rauner, the one-time private equity player who helped support the expansion of public charter schools in the Second City. Rauner signaled his stand immediately after taking office by appointing former State Sen. James Meeks, who had unsuccessfully pushed for voucher programs while in the legislature, to the state board of education. Since then, Rauner has gone further, first with his proposal to allow districts to strike outsourcing contracts for janitorial work and transportation, then by signing a new law that aims to end the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh school discipline.
None of this is pleasing to AFT and its affiliates. This is especially true for CTU, whose hard-line approach to opposing systemic reform — including the strike it took up three years ago as well as backing Garcia’s unsuccessful mayoral campaign — has won favor with Baby Boomers and other hardcore faux progressives within traditionalist ranks. The approach taken by CTU and Lewis has proven so popular that it forced AFT’s national president, Rhonda (Randi) Weingarten, to abandon her earlier attempts to pursue a third way of sorts that embraced some reforms while otherwise preserving traditionalist policies and practices.
But for AFT and its affiliates, the fight isn’t just about uses of test data and expansion of choice. It is also about preserving the most-important key to its influence: The grand bargain struck with teachers long ago that allows the union and its units to forcibly collect dues from them in exchange for the promise of ever-increasing pay and retirement benefits.
In Illinois, this bargain is threatened by the virtual insolvencies of the state’s Teachers’ Retirement System and the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund, which are wrecking havoc on budgets, and ultimately, on the pocketbooks of taxpayers. The two pensions officially report shortfalls of, respectively, $62 billion and $9.5 billion; but as Dropout Nation has determined in its analyses, the pensions are more-likely insolvent to the tunes of $78 billion and $12.5 billion, or 27 percent and 30 percent higher than official numbers suggest. Even with Illinois’ supreme court rejecting S.B. 1, Rauner and Emanuel have spent the past year pushing modest changes to the pensions that would slightly reduce the burdens. But for AFT, whose affiliates have been as responsible for the woes as politicians thanks to their control of seats on the boards of both pensions, none of the proposals are acceptable.
With threats to its influence and that of its units looming large, AFT has poured a lot of money into Chicago and Illinois just to keep as much of the status quo in place as possible.
This starts with the dollars AFT pours into CTU. In 2014-2015, the union subsidized CTU and its political action committee to the tune of $499,983; that’s 20.6 percent more than it put into the unit in the previous fiscal year. The union also poured $153,640 into the Cook County College Teachers Union, which has also been sparring with Emanuel, who also oversees community colleges within the Second City limits; that local’s most-recently fought with Emanuel came in July over the City Colleges’ decision to consolidate five child development programs into one central location.
AFT’s spend goes beyond its Chicago-based locals. This includes the array of so-called community groups and civil rights outfits that become CTU vassals. The union gave $60,000 to the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization, equal to the amount the group received from national last year; as Dropout Nation reported back in June, Kenwood Oakland also picked up $30,000 from CTU’s foundation as part of Lewis’ move to step up and politicize its ‘philanthropic’ giving. As reported last month, AFT also gave $10,000 to Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition as payment for his efforts on behalf of CTU and its allies.
The union’s spend reached beyond organizations. AFT purchased $25,718 in “professional services” from Elizabeth Parisian, a former Huffington Post contributor who works for community outfit Stand Up! Chicago; the outfit has teamed up with CTU on such moves as a letter to Emanuel demanding “transparency and community participation” in developing city budgets. This is no different than the deals AFT strikes on the national level with big-named players such as Democratic Party powerhouse-turned-CNN commentator Donna Brazile ($100,000 through her eponymous firm), talk show host Tavis Smiley $150,000 through his outfit), and Romal Tune of the Clergy Strategy Alliance (whose outfit received $102,466 in 2014-2015 alone).
AFT even spent big on hosting events and bringing honchos such as Weingarten to the Second City and Illinois. It dropped $187,490 at swanky Palmer House Hotel for one event it held in June; it also spent $68,594 for rooms and space at the Holiday Inn-Chicago Mart Plaza North in March at the height of its effort to oust Emanuel from the mayor’s office. The union spent $60,819 at the Hilton Chicago O’Hare Airport throughout 2014-2015, and spent $76,594 with Budget Rent-a-Car. Altogether in Chicago, AFT spent $1.1 million on political activities. That, of course, doesn’t include the $902,103.20 it poured into Garcia’s campaign.
At the state level, AFT subsidized Illinois Federation of Teachers and its PAC to the tune of $1.3 million slightly higher than the $1.2 million it provided in 2013-2014. The union also put $244,313 into IFT’s UIC Organizing Project, which is working to unionize the University of Illinois’ Second City campus; poured $17,370 into the Lake County Federation of Teachers’ political action fund; ladled $17,245 into North Suburban Teachers Union’s PAC; and tossed $8,640 into the University Professionals of Illinois.
The extent of AFT’s spend went beyond the state and local units. It gave $100,000 to Every Vote Counts, a voter registration group that managed to sign up 100,000 new voters from Chicago and other communities just in time for November’s Election Day. Another key recipient of AFT largesse was Illinois Freedom PAC, which worked on behalf of the union and its public-sector union allies to oppose Rauner’s campaign for governor; AFT poured $600,000 directly into the outfit, which first attempted to derail his successful campaign for the Republican gubernatorial nod, then worked to stop him from beating Quinn for the top job.
Meanwhile AFT attempted to burnish its bona fides among progressives it has long ago co-opted. It gave $250,000 to Coalition to Raise Illinois’ Minimum Wage, which successfully worked to pass a ballot measure demanding Prairie State legislators to increase the base hourly income from $8.25 to $10. The union also gave $175,000 to Committee to Reduce Income Inequality and Support Human Rights, which pushed some other ballot measures; the committee itself is chaired by Michael Carrigan, who runs the Illinois branch of AFL-CIO, the national union outfit to which AFT is a member. To build stronger ties to U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, who hails from Illinois, AFT dropped $25,000 into the Heartland Project, a Super-PAC which ran ads opposing his challenger, State Sen. Jim Oberweis.
On the public policy end, AFT gave $25,000 to Center for Tax and Public Accountability, a think tank whose board includes IFT President Daniel Montgomery and Prairie State AFL-CIO boss Carrigan. This has worked out well for the union. Besides cranking out a steady stream of pieces criticizing Rauner’s proposals to overhaul the state’s virtually-busted pensions, CTPA has also managed to crank out a piece criticizing Indiana’s voucher program, which has become a model for other school choice programs throughout the country.
Altogether on the state level, AFT spent $2.8 million on political activities; add that to the $1.1 million spent just in Chicago, and the union put $3.9 million into preserving its influence. Dollars wasted that could have been used to help younger and reform-minded teachers elevate the teaching profession — and ultimately help all kids attain high-quality education.
You can check out the data yourself by checking out the HTML and PDF versions of the AFT’s latest financial report, or by visiting the Department of Labor’s Web site. Also check out Dropout Nation‘s new collection, Teachers Union Money Report, as well as for the collection, How Teachers’ Unions Preserve Influence, for this and previous reports on AFT and NEA spending.