One thing is clear when you look at the American Federation of Teachers’ financial filings: It rarely spends money without an ulterior motive. Even as younger members demand that the AFT become more like a professional association focused on elevating the profession, the union continues to focus on bolstering its declining influence and even expanding its reach. This can easily be seen in Texas, where the nation’s second largest teachers’ union is spending plenty to oppose the state’s overhaul of teacher evaluations and gain new members at the expense of the National Education Association’s affiliate there.
These days, as the 2013-2014 financial disclosure to the U.S. Department of Labor reveals, the AFT is becoming an active force in the Lone Star face. In May, its Houston local filed suit against the traditional district to end its use of test score growth data in teacher evaluations. As far as the union is concerned, the Houston Independent School District’s use of Value Added Measurement violates the due process of their rank-and-file under the U.S. Constitution*, and thus, their ability to keep their continuing contracts (also known as near-lifetime employment or tenure around these parts). If the suit is successful, the AFT could end up filing suits against similar evaluations across the country.
Meanwhile in Austin, the AFT and its Lone Star State affiliate, AFT Texas, fought hard earlier this year to oppose the state’s overhaul of teacher evaluations. From where the union sits, the state’s move to require test score growth data for 20 percent of an overall evaluation under the new regimen is illegal under state law. [The fact that observations still constitute 70 percent of the evaluation while teachers get to game the measure thanks to a self-evaluation, all rendering the performance management tool absolutely useless, doesn’t factor into their thinking.] While the AFT and other traditionalists didn’t succeed in halting the state’s effort — which is now being reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education as part of the state’s No Child waiver request — expect them to work hard within districts (which are forced to “conference”, also known as bargain, with NEA and AFT locals) to weaken implementation.
Meanwhile the AFT is looking at Texas as a bellwether of things to come across the nation. The union is likely heartened by the Lone Star State legislature’s passage last year of House Bill 5, which scaled back the battery of standardized tests and effectively weakened accountability. AFT Texas supported the bill’s passage. There’s also August’s ruling in Texas Taxpayer & Student Fairness Coalition et. al. v. Williams, in which a judge determined that the state’s school funding formula was neither adequate or equitable. The possibility of districts gaining more money means higher salaries for the AFT’s rank-and-file, and thus, more money into its coffers through the dues it often forcibly collects.
With Latinos and other minorities becoming the majority of the state’s population (and already the majority of public school enrollment), the AFT is also betting that the Lone Star State will go from being a conservative and Republican bastion to a stronghold for Democrats and progressives, the latter of which the union has long ago co-opted. It is one reason why AFT Texas took the time this year to endorse Wendy Davis, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee whose already-sluggish run for the top office took another hit last week after unveiling an ad featuring an empty wheelchair that offended the disabled as well as Republicans.
But for the AFT, spending time on Texas isn’t just about principle. It’s also a growth opportunity. Even as the NEA’s Texas unit, the Texas State Teachers Association, has seen membership decline by 3.4 percent between 2009-2010 and 2012-2013, AFT Texas increased membership by 14 percent. This growth is occurring even as the AFT’s Houston local has seen membership declines. With 40,000 rank-and-filers, AFT Texas is nearly as formidable as the rival TSTA, at least in terms of bodies. [Both are still slightly smaller than the 50,000-member Texas Classroom Teachers Association.] The fact that there are 320,000 teachers, many of whom the AFT can try to unionize, is also appealing.
But like TSTA (which has ran deficits for two straight years), the AFT unit is also struggling financially. It generated a deficit of $309,204 in 2013-2014 on $5.9 million in revenue. Since the affiliate also generates half the revenue its NEA rival does, it needs all the help national can provide.
So the AFT is pouring money into Texas. It has directly subsidized AFT Texas (including its solidarity fund) to the tune of $1 million in 2013-2014. That’s a 23 percent increase over what it spent in the previous year. But that’s not the biggest dollars the union has poured into Texas. The AFT has devoted even more money to the affiliate’s Professional Educator Group, which serves to funnel money ($12 per member a year) into its political action committee. AFT poured $2.9 million into the PEG last fiscal year. This is on top of the $4.5 million poured into it by national in 2012-2013. Altogether, the AFT poured $3.9 million into its Lone Star State unit and its operations in 2013-2014, and has poured $9.3 million into the affiliate’s operations over the past two years, making the Texas effort one of the biggest stands against systemic reform for the union. Not one dollar, by the way, has likely gone to helping teachers improve their classroom instruction or elevate the profession.
But AFT spending in Texas isn’t just limited to the affiliate alone. It poured $100,000 into the PAC run by its Texas Organizing Project, put $21,840 into its Southwest and Mountain States regional office, and devoted $24,453 to the office’s Houston Organizing Project. The Houston local picked up $20,616 from national while the San Antonio affiliate garnered $62,790. It also spent plenty on meetings there. This included $20,372 for a Martin Luther King Day meeting at the Wyndham San Antonio Riverwalk Hotel, $32,921 at the Doubletree Houston-Greenway Plaza for “member related services”, and $6,608 at the Embassy Suites Downtown in Austin for another meeting.
Then there’s the money AFT gave to groups and individuals aligned with its interests. This included $30,000 to the Texas Future Project, an effort run by the secretive Democracy Alliance; AFT President Randi Weingarten is a key player within the group, but, like Fight Club, the first rule of Democracy Alliance is that you can’t talk about it. The AFT also paid $82,498 to Ross Fitzgerald, who used to work for the now-defunct ACORN’s Community Labor Organizing Center, for his “member related services”, and gave $5,000 to grassroots outfit Dallas Area Interfaith.
Will any of this spending help the AFT preserve its declining influence for the long haul? Probably not. Based on the ruling in the Harris decision handed down in June, the AFT may not even be able to keep forcing teachers to pay dues for long. But for now, the spending is the AFT’s stand at the Alamo, a fight to preserve the clout it has left.
*Updated to clarify due process rights being discussed in the AFT’s Houston lawsuit.