Union Politics Hurts Public Education

Saturday, August 3, 2019

Against the wishes of their own membership, teachers’ unions often embody hyper-partisanship. Reiss Becker detailing research on teachers’ unions at the California Policy Center reports that, “in the 2016 election cycle over 93 percent of union campaign spending went to Democrats.”  Many union members are unaware that political spending by their union tends to support liberal political candidates and left-wing causes, when 60 percent of their membership has identified as Republicans or independents.

Writing in a USA Today editorial, Jessica Anderson and Lindsey Burke gave a more detailed historical analysis:  “Since 1990, the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers have made over $140 million in direct political contributions. Over 97 percent of that went to liberals. That kind of political bias isn’t at all representative of the unions’ membership.”   

Education Week pointed out that the National Education Association passed “several measures that seemed to move the union in an even more progressive direction.” This was in reference to “social issues as abortion and reparations, protested immigration policies, and, above all, pledged to defeat President Donald Trump in the 2020 election.”  Taking positions on these non-education issues also impacts educators and the community perception about public education.   

Factor in that quite a few of these “issues” they espouse are typically classified as non-education issues. Members are rightfully being lambasted over the actions of their own delegates to the 2019 National Education Association Representative Assembly due to the passage of Business Item 56, which stated: “The NEA vigorously opposes all attacks on the right to choose and stands on the fundamental right to abortion under Roe v. Wade.” 

Anderson and Burke then added: Why would the NEA go out of its way to stake out extreme stances on hot-button issues so far removed from the very real problems facing our nation’s schools? It appears as though the union is more concerned with promoting the political objectives of the left than serving the nation’s teachers and students. The answer may be as simple as federal law does not require union leaders to get their members’ authorization before spending their members’ money on non-educational, social issues.  

Members of the union must ask themselves questions about their direct campaign contributions and independent spending at the national, state and local level.  Journalist Leah Mishkin blatantly asked union officials:  Why are some members unaware that part of their membership dues are helping to foot the bill?  Many educators simply do not want their dues used for endorsing or supporting political candidates, or social issues.

For too long union members at the state and local level have stated they disagree with their national union and their agenda, while sending in their hard-earned money in support.  Writer and researcher Mike Antonucci has correctly pointed out when state and local union members try to hide behind semantics: “All of its members are NEA members. They all send dues to NEA. You can’t wash your hands of your affiliation when it’s convenient.”  

That is a critical point, and one that their own members must understand; if you join the local union you are also supporting the national union.  NEA Executive Director John Stocks resigned in June 2019 to chair the Democracy Alliance.  Antonucci gives us the rest of the story about the musical chairs involving Stocks, his replacement, and the Democracy Alliance: 

He (Stocks) concurrently serves as chairman of the board of the Democracy Alliance, a network of wealthy progressive political donors. He will continue in that role while acting as a senior adviser at NEA until after the 2020 elections. His successor as NEA executive director is Kim Anderson, a longtime senior staffer at the union who for the past three years has been executive vice president of the Democracy Alliance.

The assumption of many educators is that teachers’ unions are choosing ideology over their own members. That is why state-based professional associations who offer liability and legal protection, professional development, and member benefits are growing nationally.  Most teachers, either on the left or the right, do not choose education as a career choice because they enjoy politics.  They just want to teach while leaving political pursuits to their personal lives, not their professional ones.  Unlike a recent NEA delegate vote, most educators---including union members---actually value student learning as a priority.  

Alexandra DeSanctis, a staff writer for National Review, suggests in a recent article that the National Education Association must think that as an “influential left-wing organization, the group must necessarily champion the entire progressive agenda.” She then submits that there is “a growing tendency on the Left, as ‘intersectional’ thinking takes hold — the idea that each interest group within the broader progressive movement has a responsibility to embrace and advocate the particular interests of the rest.” 

Union politics often hurt public education and educators with an agenda that many parents and taxpayers are baffled by, and members are left to explain.  Marching in lockstep in any political direction is always a mistake.   As former classroom teacher Larry Sand, currently president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, writes about teachers’ unions: “the choice between unions becoming more ecumenical or more radical has been made.”   At this point, there is no turning back, as some union leaders merely seek to build a militant minority to revive the labor movement.  Sadly, teachers have become pawns in this game.  They are pawns in the union political agenda.         

JC Bowman
Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville


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