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Education Reporter

Who is the Biggest Campaign Spender of All?
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Political ads constantly warn Americans to beware of the legislative clout big business can buy. But the biggest political campaign spender isn't ExxonMobil, Wal-Mart or Microsoft, or even an industry association like the American Bankers Association. It's not even an entire labor federation, like the AFL-CIO. Indeed, the combined campaign spending of all those entities does not match the amount spent by the National Education Association, the public-sector union of 2.3 million teachers and nearly one million support staff.

In a first-of-its-kind comprehensive analysis of 2007-2008 state and national election cycle spending, the NEA ranked number one on state and federal campaign, political party, and ballot measure spending, shelling out $56.3 million, or $12.5 million more than the second-place group. If you add the $12 million spent by the American Federation of Teachers and the $3.4 million spent on NEA/AFT joint campaigns, the two unions doled out a whopping $71.7 million in the 2007-2008 election cycle.

In addition to their direct attempts to influence elections and policy through lobbying and election campaigns, the NEA and AFT give millions more to allies who help further their educational and social agendas.

They also create and fund front groups to give the impression of widespread, independent agreement with their education policies.

For example, Communities for Quality Education (CQE) was formed in 2004 as an ostensibly independent organization. Despite the fact that CQE's board consisted entirely of current and past teachers union officials, and that it garnered its entire 2004 budget of $8.9 million dollars from NEA national and state affiliates, news coverage never mentioned its union ties.

Beyond its extensive 2004 election campaign activities, CQE also worked for Pennsylvania State Education Association's "Save Pennsylvania Schools" campaign in 2009 and Utah's 2007 referendum to overturn the state's voucher law.

Another group, the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, purports to be a "unique partnership" between Great Lakes states sharing a common goal of "qualitative improvement and healthy growth of all public schools in the entire Great Lakes region." Actually, the group is a consortium of NEA state affiliates from Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. The press release announcing the center's launch in 2000 made no mention of teachers unions or that 16 of its 17 officers and trustees are NEA officers and employees.

NEA and AFT union dues buy a tremendous amount of political influence, and 95% of their contributions go to Democrat candidates or promote left-leaning issues. Is that because most teachers are politically liberal? A 2005 NEA survey found that its members "are slightly more conservative (50%) than liberal (43%) in political philosophy," but that local presidents are disproportionately liberal as compared to their constituents, particularly in the larger affiliates.

Furthermore, teachers and support staff often have no choice about whether to pay the dues that fund all of their unions' political advocacy. Currently, employees in 28 states risk losing their jobs if they refuse to join a union; some workers are forced to pay dues even if they don't join. During the 2009-2010 school year, the NEA national affiliate collected $162 per teacher and $93 per public school support staffer; teachers and staff pay an average of $300 in additional dues to their local and state affiliates. NEA's budget for 2010 is $355 million.

In most states, it is perfectly legal for teachers unions to use member dues to contribute to political campaigns and causes, including those that have nothing to do with education. The general public is largely unaware of the outsized influence of teachers unions on candidate elections and issues ranging from taxation and health care to redistricting and gay marriage, according to Mike Antonucci, director of the Education Intelligence Agency. "More than any other single national entity, the NEA is a driving force supporting attempts to raise state taxes, and defeating tax cut or limitation measures."

Antonucci believes news reporters should cover the teachers unions as major national and fiscal political players in all the issues they engage in rather than letting them continue to slip under the radar on non-education issues. "Only then will the public see that Big Oil and Big Tobacco have been superseded by Big Education," he said. (Education Next, Fall 2010; heritage.org, 7-20-10)

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