When it comes to political spending, the National Education Association isn’t nearly as savvy or as targeted as the rival American Federation of Teachers. The union has tried to do better at throwing its dollars around. This includes its recent effort to get social justice groups it funds to echo its messaging and work more-closely with it on opposing systemic reform, as well as its increasingly close ties to the secretive Democracy Alliance. But the union’s reticence on this front, a legacy of its origins as a professional association (a pose that many of its affiliates still embrace), means that it is scattershot when it comes to leveraging its vast coffers.
But what NEA lacks in strategic thinking it more than makes up for in sheer spending, especially on ballot measures at the state level as well as the army of political consultants it leverages to preserve influence. Sometimes, the spending can yield good results for its side. This becomes clear once you peruse the union’s 2014-2015 financial disclosure to the U.S. Department of Labor.
NEA threw plenty of big money at ballot initiatives with varying degrees of success. In Michigan, NEA gave $50,000 to Michigan Citizens for Better Roads and Schools, an outfit that unsuccessfully supported Proposal 1, a measure on the ballot earlier this year which would have enacted increased the state’s sales, use, and fuel taxes. Given that Wolverine State districts collect 75 percent of sales tax revenue (and therefore, would use it to cover busted pensions and hire new teachers), it was natural for NEA to support the measure.
In Mississippi, NEA gave $16,284 to its affiliate there for its unsuccessful effort to pass Initiative 42, another measure on the ballot this year which aimed to give the Magnolia State’s judiciary control over school funding and other aspects of public education. If the initiative passed, NEA’s affiliate would have likely used the courts to push for increases in state education funding, which, in turn, would have led to more teachers (and therefore, more due-paying rank-and-file) on district payrolls.
Then in Tennessee, NEA gave $5,000 to Citizens for Fiscal Sanity, a group which unsuccessfully pushed against the passage of Amendment 3, which banned the passage of an income tax. The group proclaimed that such a ban would lead to “a double-digit tax increase on food & necessities”. Another loss was in Florida, where NEA’s $120,000 subsidy to the Public Education Defense Fund run by its Sunshine State affiliate yielded few results as Gov. Rick Scott won a second term.
But for every loss, NEA has also garnered big wins. The biggest was in Washington State, where it backed a group called Class Size Counts to the tune of $1.6 million. Why? Because the outfit was the prime mover in successfully passing Initiative 1351, which requires the Evergreen State to reduce class sizes in grades four-through-12 to just 22-to-25 children per classroom. Thanks to the passage of the measure, Washington State districts will have to hire 15,000 new teachers, which is music to the ears of NEA and its state affiliate.
Washington Education Association forcibly collects $375.82 annually from every teacher covered under its collective bargaining agreements, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of the unit’s most-recent filing with the Internal Revenue Service. Given that WEA represents 94 percent of the 91,916 teachers covered by it and the AFT’s much-smaller state affiliate, WEA will likely add 14,118 new teachers, eventually generating $5.3 million a year for the unit (as well as an additional $1.7 million annually, or $119.05 per teacher, for NEA national). While implementation of I1351 was delayed by legislators this past July — and is caught up in a longstanding battle over school funding that has included rulings by the state’s high court — the law could eventually reap dividends for the union.
Another big win for NEA was in Illinois, which had several measures on the ballot in 2014 NEA gave $250,000 to Committee to Raise Illinois’ Minimum Wage, which was successful in passing a ballot measure advising the state legislature to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour. The union also gave $250,000 to Fairness for Working Families, another group that also successfully passed a measure asking the legislature to levy an additional three percent income tax on citizens earning more than $1 million a year in order to finance the state’s traditional districts; the state’s spending increased by 44 percent (from $20 billion to $29 billion) between 2003-2004 and 2012-2013, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Illinois, by the way, had already increased income taxes by 67 percent (to five percent) back in 2011, but rolled it back to 3.75 percent earlier this year.
In Hawaii, NEA gave $510,000 to For the Future of Our Keiki, which successfully defeated passage of Question No. 4, which would have expanded school choice for families of preschool children by giving them vouchers to send them to privately-run prekindergarten programs. [The union’s political action committee kicked in an additional $275,000, according to data from Ballotpedia.] Despite the measure being backed strongly by Aloha State politicians, NEA and its affiliate managed to defeat it by a nine-point margin.
Another key win was in Missouri, when NEA gave $250,000 to Committee in Support of Public Education, which helped defeat the teacher evaluation reform measure contained in Amendment 3. The ballot initiative, which would have required the use the Show-Me State to use student test score growth data in teacher evaluations, was abandoned months before voters had a chance to deem it worthy of passage. But any Election Day victory for NEA is a good one.
Meanwhile in Nebraska, NEA gave $100,000 to Nebraskans for Better Wages, which successfully backed a referendum increasing the minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 over the next two years. The union also gave $750,000 to Give Arkansas A Raise, which also successfully supported a minimum raise hike referendum. In Maine, the union gave $50,000 to Yes to Maine Clean Elections, which successfully advocated for passage of that state’s Question One, a campaign finance reform measure that requires candidates to disclose their top three funders as well as fines candidates for filing late disclosures. The union’s Pine Tree State affiliate was a major supporter of the initiative.
The biggest political win for NEA at the state level wasn’t a ballot initiative, but the removal of reform-minded school leaders from the Jefferson County district in Colorado. The union achieved this by giving $150,000 to Jeffco United, a group led by the union’s Jefferson County local that successfully ousted the district’s reform-minded majority this past Election Day. Even as reformers attempted to spin Election Day in the Rocky Mountain State as a good day for the movement, NEA actually scored a real win that ensures a return to an older that benefits the union politically and otherwise.
NEA is pouring money into states to get ready for future political battles. In Oregon, it gave $500,000 to Defend Oregon, a coalition of traditionalists and public-sector unions (including AFT’s state affiliate along with the union’s Oregon Nurses Association unit) that has beaten back ballot efforts by movement conservatives. The group is mobilizing this year against possible ballot measures during the 2016 election cycle.
For school reformers, especially conservative reformers in the Beltway celebrating what might be the likely passage of a reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act that strips away strong accountability measures, these numbers should give them pause. Wonks who wistfully believe that systemic reform can be sustained solely by focusing on statehouses, should ask themselves if they really believe that the movement has the capacity to beat back a teachers’ union with dollars and bodies at its disposal? Given that the movement never had the numbers or the dollars that NEA and AFT have long had at their disposal, those erstwhile reformers happy with weakening the federal role in education policymaking must now ask themselves how will they come out of their ivory towers and work with their allies to build up the capacity to work voting booths and statehouses. [This, by the way, was an issue even when No Child’s accountability measures were in full force.]
Back inside the Beltway, NEA spent plenty on political consultants, pollsters, and media advisers to assist in its efforts. It spent $111,224 with Democrat pollster Celinda Lake’s eponymous firm; this gave the union some Orwellian talking points to give out to its advocates in the rank-and-file in the fight against systemic reform. The union also paid $71,232 to grassroots mobilization outfit 50+1 Strategies, $50,000 to voter outreach firm Chism Strategies, and $314,516 with digital campaign platform outfit NGP VAN.
The union spent big on the communications front. It paid $1.8 million to Democrat strategist Will Robinson’s New Media Firm for its work, while dropping $281,605 with Terris, Barnes, & Walters for campaign communications work. The union also paid $1.5 million to powerhouse advocacy firm GMMB’s secretive Waterfront Strategies unit, spent $470,245 with political direct advertising outfit Hopkins+Sachs, and put $358,358 into the hands of Gumbinner & Davies Communications to put more junk mail into the hands of potential supporters.
Certainly NEA also put some of those rank-and-file dollars to work through contributions to progressive groups. The union gave $150,000 to Corporate Action Network and its Action Center, ensuring that the outfit would bolster its class warfare bona fides.
Of course, NEA’s biggest spend was with its own super-PAC. It poured $8.7 million into the NEA Advocacy Fund during 2014-2015, nearly every dollar coming before the 2014 Election Day; those dollars were used by the super-PAC as part of the $19 million the union spent during the last election cycle. The results were not good at all. From now-former North Carolina U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan’s defeat at the hands of Republican Thom Tillis, to Cory Gardner’s victory over Mark Udall for Colorado’s federal upper house seat, NEA Advocacy’s spend went to waste. To administer the super-PAC, NEA spent $174,577 with Public Affairs Support Services.
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 AFT and NEA spending.