When it comes to influence-buying, the National Education Association has rarely been especially thoughtful or strategic. The nation’s largest teachers’ union assiduously allies itself with progressive groups, cajoles social justice groups into helping it dress up its agenda, and teams up the notoriously-secretive Democracy Alliance. But it has never been strategic in its spending, especially in focusing on specific cities or states in which locals and affiliates are at risk of losing influence. Nor has it recruited staffers from even-savvier outfits such as the Service Employees International Union. As a result, it has often been less-savvy and less-successful in its gamesmanship than the rival American Federation of Teachers.
But as NEA’s 2015-2016 disclosure to the U.S. Department of Labor, along with campaign finance documents, reveals, the union has stepped up its sophistication in its successful spend against a ballot measure in Massachusetts to expand charter schools.
As you know by now, one of the most-prominent efforts to advance systemic reform fell apart last month when 62 percent of Bay State voters voted down Question 2. Thanks to the defeat, children stuck in failure mills and schools that don’t fit their academic and social needs won’t be able to attend any of the 12 charters that state officials would have been allowed authorize every year.
None of this sat well with reformers who long took for granted that the role of the state’s capital, Boston, as an epicenter and example of successful systemic reform. Given the ideological divide within the movement that has emerged in the past five years, internal finger-pointing, especially from reformers outside the state, is bubbling up. Even before Election Day, Robert Pondiscio, the E.D. Hirsch acolyte who now serves as Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Michael Petrilli’s attack man, complained that centrist Democrat and civil rights-oriented reformers failed to speak the language or address the desires) of suburban voters who saw no point in expanding choice.
Yet no one within the movement paid attention to one of the key reasons behind Question 2’s defeat: The spending, co-opting, and politicking NEA and its Bay State affiliate (along with that of AFT and its locals) did to rally much-needed opposition.
NEA was in a bit of a disadvantage to start. It didn’t have much support for its effort to quash Question 2 from other players among Massachusetts’ labor unions. One possible reason: The expectation that Marty Walsh, the former union leader, charter school founder, and choice advocate who is now Boston’s mayor, would back it. That the measure had strong support from the Bay State’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, also gave reformers much hope.
But NEA and its Massachusetts Teachers Association had some key advantages going into the political battle — and it started with cold, hard cash. In 2014 and 2015, the NEA affiliate itself spent poured $3 million into its Super-PAC, giving it plenty of money to mount a political onslaught against the measure. More importantly, the union’s strong ties to traditionalist activists on the ground, along with its role as a leading player in Bay State politics, all but ensured that it could rally support against the measure.
One of the groups: Citizens for Public Schools, a coalition of faith-based groups, old-school education associations, and unions that includes AFT Massachusetts and Boston Teachers Union, as well as longtime vassals of the national NEA’s largesse such as FairTest, the state branch of the NAACP, and the Bay State branch of People for the American Way. Together with Citizens for Public Schools and AFT’s units, MTA formed Save Our Public Schools, which would spearhead opposition from traditionalists and districts (known as school committees in Massachusetts) Question 2.
This is where NEA and its vast coffers came into play. By the end of its 2015-2016 fiscal year, the union plunked down $500,000 into Save Our Public Schools, according to its filing with the Department of Labor. This allowed Save Our Public Schools to put on a scare campaign that featured declarations that Question 2 would cause districts to lose their funding. [Of course, no one opposed to Question 2 considered the ridiculous thinking that districts, along with NEA and AFT affiliates, think they deserve to receive money for children they are no longer serving.]
Over the following months, NEA would leverage its coffers and its Ballot Measure/Emergency Crisis Fun to provide Save Our Public Schools with even more mother’s milk. This included a cash infusion of $3.5 million in October, a month before Election Day, according to the Bay State’s Office of Campaign and Political Finance. Altogether, NEA dumped $5.4 million into Save Our Public Schools, likely its biggest spend on a ballot measure this year. Along with MTA’s $8.4 million in donations, the union accounted for 80 percent of the $17.2 million (including in-kind donations) spent to defeat the measure.
NEA also made sure to provide additional subsidies to MTA. It gave $3.7 million to the Bay State affiliate in 2015-2016, a six percent increase over the previous year. Those dollars were well-deserved. Without MTA and its president, Barbara Madeloni, putting muscle into opposing Question 2, NEA wouldn’t have gained any victory.
As you would expect, AFT and its units also did its part, though it was NEA that did the heavy lifting. The union’s Bay State affiliate dropped $617,949.69 into Save Our Public Schools, while the Boston Teachers Union gave $349,550 to defeat the measure. AFT national dropped $1.7 million into the opposition, as well as contributed $36,115 to the Boston local’s political action committee and $196,506 to that of the state affiliate. More importantly, the union gave financial support to like-minded groups. This included $31,500 to the Boston Youth Organizing Project, $31,250 to Center for Labor Education and Research’s Boston Education Justice Alliance, and $31,250 to Massachusetts Jobs with Justice. All three groups, naturally, endorsed Save Our Public Schools’ fight against Question 2; Jobs with Justice took a step further by contributing $8,000 to Save Our Public Schools.
To tie the effort to expand charters with Wall Street — and win support from progressives who irrationally hate anything tied to capitalism — MTA and AFT Massachusetts filed a complaint with the U.S. Securities & Exchange Commission accusing Baker of backing Question 2 in order to win support from private-equity players who have long been key philanthropists in the school reform movement. The complaint is the epitome of frivolity — the only evidence provided was a commercial the governor did on the referendum — but it was more than enough to give reasons to progressives in the state to turn their backs on children.
All the spending, co-opting and politicking done by NEA and AFT achieved results. By Election Day, reformers lost a potential supporter in Walsh, who took to the pages of the Boston Globe to oppose Question 2. Besides remembering that he runs the traditional district, Walsh also wants to keep his job and doesn’t want to get on the wrong side of the Boston AFT.
Baker’s presence in backing the measure backfired with Bay State Democrats, whose state committee voted to oppose the measure. In the process, the state party, along with U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and the state’s congressional delegation, effectively went to war against centrist Democrat reformers including the state’s powerful house speaker, Robert DeLeo, as well as former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and his successor, John King (who founded a charter school in Boston’s Roxbury section).
With all but a few key players within the Democratic machinery opposing Question 2, the measure all but doomed.
The defeat won’t likely stop reformers from working to expand charters. After all, they came close to doing so earlier this year when state senators approved a bill that would have allowed more of them to open in exchange for increased funding for districts. But the defeat at the ballot box, despite outspending NEA and its allies by $9.6 million ($26.8 million versus $17.2 million) hurts reformers to no end. They are now forced to think through how they can build stronger support for school choice, both on the ground and among policymakers who must remember that they depend on NEA and AFT money to keep their phony baloney offices.
As for NEA? The Big Two union’s success in Massachusetts gives it a possible blueprint for beating back reform efforts at the state level, which is especially important in the age of the Every Student Succeeds Act and an incoming Trump Administration and Republican-controlled Congress that will give it less consideration than ever. Whether or not NEA will embrace those lessons — or if they can even be applied in the Republican-dominated states in which most of its affiliates and locals are located — are different questions altogether.
Dropout Nation will provide additional analysis of the NEA’s financial filing later this week. You can check out the data yourself by checking out the HTML and PDF versions of the NEA’s latest financial report, or by visiting the Department of Labor’s Web site. Also check out Dropout Nation‘s Teachers Union Money Report, for this and previous reports on NEA spending.