Last week, Dropout Nation detailed how National Education Association spent big to score a major victory over reformers in the battle over the charter school expansion plan contained in Massachusetts’ Question 2. But further analysis of the Big Two teachers’ union’s 2015-2016 disclosure to the U.S. Department of Labor shows, the Bay State wasn’t the only place where NEA spent big — and scored success.
In Maine, for example, NEA poured $1 million into Citizens Who Support Maine’s Public Schools, a coalition including the union’s state affiliate. The group would go on to successfully push for the passage of Question 2, a ballot measure to levy a three percent tax on incomes of greater than $200,000 ostensibly to finance the state’s traditional public schools. [Opponents of the measure are pushing for a recount.] Thanks to NEA, Citizens and its allies outspent opponents of the measure (including Gov. Paul LePage) by $3.6 million ($3.9 million to 286,717.95, according to Ballotpedia), effectively winning the spending — and ultimately, the electoral — battle.
Another big score was in Georgia, where NEA’s state affiliate and traditional districts successfully beat back Amendment 1, Gov. Nathan Deal’s plan have allowed the Peach State to take over 127 failure mills and put them into a statewide district similar to Louisiana’s now-defunct Recovery School District. To help beat back that effort, NEA reported at the end of its fiscal year that it poured $500,000 into Committee to Keep Georgia Schools Local, a coalition featuring NEA’s Georgia Association of Educators and the state branch of AFL-CIO. [NEA also gave $100,000 to GAE in support of opposing the ballot measure.] These dollars, along with another $3.4 million NEA tossed into Keep Georgia’s coffers during the first months of its current fiscal year, and another $200,000 from American Federation of Teachers, helped opponents of Amendment 1 outspend supporters by a 2-to-1 margin ($5.1 million versus $2.6 million).
But not every measure NEA backed was passed at the ballot box. In Oregon, the union poured $350,000 into Yes on 97, which fought to pass a measure levying a 2.5 percent gross receipts tax on businesses generating more than $25 million in annual revenue; NEA gave another $2 million in cash and in-kind donations between September and November, months after the end of its 2015-2016 fiscal year, according to Oregon’s Secretary of State. [AFT, whose nursing and teaching affiliates are big political players in the state, gave $1 million to Yes on 97.] The union also gave $150,000 to one of its longtime vassals in the state, Defend Oregon, which worked with Yes on 97 to push the measure. But on Election Day, voters rejected the proposed tax by 59 percent to 41 percent.
But NEA ballot battles weren’t just about opposing school choice and raising tax revenues that would ultimately contribute to its bottom line. It also worked to support its allies, especially progressive groups and labor unions, in their efforts to increase minimum wages and defend gay rights. Certainly, neither NEA nor its rank-and-file directly benefit one bit from minimum wage increases and the union’s affiliates have proven willing to back anti-gay rights candidates when it suited their purposes. But by supporting those efforts, NEA bolsters its image as a champion for progressives, gay households, and low-income households, even as it fights for policies and practices that ultimately harm the latter two groups by denying their children high-quality education.
While reformers have been successful in building similar alliances with businesses, the movement has recently struggled to extend beyond those relationships to social justice activists and even organizations in rural communities such as Future Farmers of America. In fact, reformers remain split over the simple matter of working with Black Lives Matter and criminal justice reform advocates, whose work on issues affecting the families of poor and minority children should be a natural fit. This struggle is essentially helping NEA and AFT gain allies who should be supporting systemic reform.
Back in Maine, NEA gave $231,000 to Mainers for Fair Wages, a group that successfully fought to pass a minimum wage increase contained in Question 4. Thanks to NEA’s help, minimum wage advocates can now take credit for increasing hourly wages for low-skilled workers from $7.50 to $12 by 2020.
Another successful effort came in Colorado, where NEA gave $430,000 to Colorado Families for a Fair Wage, a group that successfully pushed for the minimum wage hike contained in Amendment 70. Thanks to the union’s backing, that group successfully convinced voters to support an increase from $8.31 an hour to $12 an hour within the next four years.
Meanwhile in Houston, NEA gave $50,000 to Houston United, which unsuccessfully fought last year for passage of the Texas metropolis’ anti-gay discrimination ordinance. The measure, which was voted down by 61 percent to 39 percent, according to Ballotpedia, generated national controversy after city officials filed subpoenas demanding copies of five sermons given against the ordinance by local clergy, raising fears of religious discrimination that ultimately led to the measure’s defeat.
None of NEA’s big ballot spends are surprising. As Dropout Nation has reported in the past, the union is a big player in supporting state and local ballot initiatives it favors. This includes donations to the progressive Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, to which NEA gave $380,000 in 2015-2016, and has financed to the tune of $1.1 million between 2010-2011 and 2015-2016. NEA also got help from consultancy TrueBallot, to which it paid $21,887 last fiscal year.
NEA took an even bolder step earlier this year when it voted to devote even more money from its Ballot Measure/Emergency Crisis Fund to fight off reform measures on the ballot in Massachusetts and Georgia, as well as support more-favorable initiatives elsewhere. This meant even more spending on political consultants at the state level. This included dropping $254,663 with Blue State Digital, $356,000 with AL Media (the former Adelstein Liston) on various media messaging, and $58,000 on Big Bowl of Ideas (which is known for its work with minimum wage advocates).
As for NEA’s other political spending? The union spent $60,122 with Mack Sumner Communications for political messaging services, $48,750 with Revolution Messaging for digital ads, $502,503 with Angle Mastagni Matthews for a variety of robocalls, $477,088 with Mission Control Inc., on direct mail, and $70,915 with political consultancy 50+1.
NEA’s biggest single spend was on public relations, dropping $6.8 million with ad giant Interpublic Group’s Weber Shandwick. On public relations, the union spent $585,887 with broadcast publicity outfit Lyons Public Relations, bought $245,450 in services from Dewey Square Group, spent $104,994 with Acadia Consulting, and handed over $24,163 to Camino Public Relations for its services. It also spent $11,351 with Agile Education Marketing, spent $127,013 with Elope on promotional gear, and bought $28,500 worth of media training services from Oratorio. For advertising, it spent $407,602 with Hedrush Agency, a firm ran by “cultural curator” Munch Joseph.
As part of its public relations costs, NEA also spent $25,000 with the National Education Writers Association, the group providing training and other services to journalists covering districts and education agencies. A very helpful way to get before reporters and pundits without having to craft a pitch — and another example of how NEA is truly a corporate entity.
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 other reports on AFT and NEA spending.