One of the most-hotly debated questions is how strong is the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers compared to the school reform movement. When it comes to the money that is key to political influence, there is no doubt: The NEA and AFT together spend roughly $700 million per year, consistently, on a broad spectrum of political communication activities opposed to reform. This means that the financial (and political) muscle of the two unions is far greater than that of school reform organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform, StudentsFirst (for which I used to work), Stand for Children, Black Alliance for Educational Options, and the American Federation for Children.

wpid-threethoughslogoTo understand the unions’ advantages, start with the AFT and NEA national budgets. The AFT has 1.6 million members and generated $233 million in revenue (net of borrowing) as of 2013-2014, according to this week’s Dropout Nation analysis of financial data; the NEA had 3.1 million members and national revenues of $387 million in 2012-2013. This total is only the beginning. Although teachers have “unitary dues” where they pay once for national, state, and local affiliates, the state and local portions of the bill vary greatly and can be quite significant. In the state of New Jersey, for instance, compulsory dues come to $936 per teacher, less than $200 of which go to national. In Chicago, the compulsory dues that the AFT’s Chicago Teachers Union deducts from paychecks amount to $1,060 per teacher a year, several hundred dollars more than go to Illinois and national combined. Average dues of nearly $1,000 per year appear quite common.

The volume and reporting diversity of state and local filings makes a comprehensive assessment difficult. Indeed, the unions’ financial heft deters consultants from even trying, as no one wants to be blacklisted from future union contracts. In exchange for their confidentiality, I engaged a team of consultants on behalf to work for several weeks pro bono in combing through various national, state, and local disclosure documents. These consultants concluded that the combined budgets amount to $2.2 billion per year, of which roughly $1.6 billion comes indirectly from taxpayers through compulsory paycheck deductions. This estimate is consistent with the state-by-state research published two years ago by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

While not all of the $2.2 billion is used for politics, the sums available for pure politics are massive. When vouchers were proposed by ballot initiative in California in 1993, for instance, unions were able to deploy $30 million in today’s dollars to defeat the initiative. As Dropout Nation and others have consistently shown, the AFT and NEA are among the largest ongoing contributors to politics, consistently increasing their donations even as their respective memberships among those in K-12 are in decline.

More importantly, the narrow definition of “political” dollars is almost meaningless. Officially non-political dollars, such as “member communications” and related employee time, frequently get used for grassroots lobbying of union members. It is rare to read an NEA or AFT mailer or attend any teachers’ union event that does not rebroadcast the union leaders’ political messages. This financial freedom to disseminate messages to teachers and their allies, dovetailing with the smothering of pro-reform voices within the union, means that teaching is presented as a monolithic bloc opposed to reform. Electorally and politically, this is especially powerful because teachers are one of the nation’s most highly-respected professions. So the NEA and AFT exploit this esteem in their voter canvassing work.

As Dropout Nation detailed in this week’s review of the AFT’s finances (as well as in analysis of the NEA’s spending), another way that nonpolitical dollars become political is when unions pass along millions in taxpayer-funded dues to organizations, from civil rights groups to feminist groups, so as to enlist future loyalty. While officially non-political, these distributions generate political payoffs when those other groups join the unions in marches, lawsuits, and hard-dollar fundraising drives.

So how much, exactly, of the $2.2 billion go to political communications of these various sorts? Unfortunately, the unions themselves are responsible for reporting and enforcing the boundary between political and non-political, and a recent history of settlements for electoral violations and court defeats shows they are willing to blur that line. Sources I interviewed estimated that unions spend roughly one third of their total resources on broadly defined political communications, including grassroots lobbying and organizing around content. This is consistent with union observer Mike Antonucci’s estimate that the NEA alone spends a bit under $450 million annually on politics; if you scale that up on a pro-rata basis by the AFT’s budget, the combined total would be over $700 million annually in political expenditures.

Crucially, this $700 million gets spent reliably every year. That allows investments in infrastructure, rapid response operations, staff talent development, and long-term political relationships. Politicians taking a long-term view of their careers can trust that the union dollars will be there year after year. Newspapers considering editorial decisions know that union advertisers are reliable customers.

Union apologists such as Diane Ravitch suggest that this $700 million political budget merely offsets the wealth deployed by “corporate-style reformers” to achieve change. This claim is patently false. The math on compulsory dues is straightforward: millions of members, paying nearly a thousand dollars per year in dues, generate billions in revenue.

Consider the Walton family, education’s most prominent reform philanthropists. The $63 million they spent on supporting education reform in 2013 is less than one-tenth of the dollars spent by NEA and AFT in a given year. The Gates Foundation is larger, but gives even less to education, because most of its grants go overseas to issues such as fighting malaria. And even within education, Gates Foundation grants often go to the NEA and AFT themselves as well as to traditional districts. It is unclear whether their contributions to reformers are even net positive. Meanwhile other reformers focus on other issues beyond education. Reform organizations have improved their fundraising in the past few years, and have been able to sustain some pressure on the unions as a result. But the combined annual budgets of school reform advocates still amount to only a fraction of the Big Two teachers’ unions.

As if all that were not enough, unions have an ace up their sleeve: Their sway over school districts. Thanks to low turnouts in school district elections, unions essentially elect school board officials, who in turn, appoint superintendents who then select principals. Even when teachers face a pro-reform superintendent, they can thwart reform. Consider the admission by Michael Mulgrew, the president of the AFT’s United Federation of Teachers in New York City that he deliberately “ ‘gummed up’ the implementation of teacher evaluations last year during negotiations with the prior Bloomberg administration.” By controlling districts, schools, and classrooms, union leaders can block or even sabotage reforms that they do not like.

School reformers (and everyone else) must realize that they will need to redouble their investments of time and money in order to play on a level playing field with the NEA and the AFT.