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Top Teacher Union Spent $35 Million On Politics

An analysis of the National Education Association’s political spending by Watchdog.org has found that the country’s largest teacher’s union spent over $35 million in the last fiscal year on political causes.

With slightly under 3 million members, that’s $10 from every single member of the union going to the organization’s favored causes and candidates, without including any spending during the home stretch of the 2014 elections. In addition, not all of the organization’s political spending appears to be explicitly identified as such.

The analysis is based on the NEA’s annual financial report to the Department of Labor. The report reveals that NEA’s political spending was spread across many different outlets. Just under $10 million went into the group’s super PAC, the NEA Advocacy Fund, to back candidates for elected office. Other money was used to back specific ballot initiatives NEA was backing or opposing. For example, Class Size Counts, the group pushing a successful Washington ballot measure that will force the state to hire additional teachers, took in $483,000 from the NEA. Spending did not just cover campaign work, but also the group’s significant lobbying efforts nationwide.

While vast, political expenditures were still only a small part of the union’s budget. The NEA’s over 3 million members paid $362 million in dues last year alone, meaning that about 90 percent of its member’s money went elsewhere. $44 million was spent on the NEA’s representation activities as a labor union, $54 million on administration, $61 million on benefits, and over $100 million on a motley assortment of grants and gifts.

Watchdog, however, found that among those grants were over $3.6 million given to organizations with a clear political purpose, but whose grants were not classified as political spending. For example, the Center for American Progress, a liberal think-tank, received $160,000 from the NEA, but did not end up among its political spending. ProgressNow, a Colorado-based non-profit that helps drive progressive causes, received $150,000, which also was not classified as political in nature.

The NEA wasn’t alone among teachers unions in putting big sums towards political ends in 2014, a year where unions openly committed to spending more in an effort to shape electoral outcomes. The NEA’s smaller cousin, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), officially channeled about $25 million of its $345 million in total revenue towards political endeavors. Since the AFT is just over half the size of the NEA with about 1.6 million members, its political spending is an even bigger outlay on a per-member basis.

These figures also only reflect spending by national organizations. The state level saw big political expenditures from labor as well. The New York State United Teachers, one of the country’s largest state unions with about 600,000 members, spent $9 million of its own money on political ventures in the 2014 fiscal year, a period that includes not only last year’s New York mayoral race but also this year’s contentious legislative races and a major ballot measure putting billions of dollars towards technology in schools. The Pennsylvania branch of the NEA, meanwhile, spent over $3 million in a campaign that revolved around the successful ouster of Governor Tom Corbett.

These expenditures, which may have surpassed $100 million at all levels, represent record levels of financial commitment by public school teachers, who have started to push back hard against current education reform agendas that focus on charter schools, school vouchers, merit pay, and increased standardized testing, among other policies despised by the public school establishment.

However, that record spending was powerless to stop what ended up becoming a Republican wave election. Unions were humiliated by the victory of Republican gubernatorial candidates in liberal bastions such as Illinois, Massachusetts, and Maryland, while they failed to take out despised incumbents such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin and Rick Scott in Florida.

Hotly-contested U.S. Senate races were no better, as union-backed incumbents such as Democrats Kay Hagan and Mark Udall were routed, helping to turn Congress’s upper chamber to Republican control. Down-ballot, teachers had slightly more to be happy with, as several ballot initiatives boosting school funding were passed, but unions did not spend $100 million nationwide in order to eke out wins on ballot measures.

Despite these setbacks, there are no signs unions will try a different approach in 2016. In New York, for instance, the United Teachers have already announced plans to meet state legislative defeats with a significantly expanded day-to-day political operation.

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