Already, national political fundraising ma- chines are beginning to hum and s putter toward early targets in their quest to break another election cycle’s worth of spending records. The nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association (NEA), was the heaviest contributor to U.S. political campaigns in 2007-08, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Early indications show it is a front-runner to be so again. Along with its state affiliates, the NEA took in $1.5 billion in revenue in 2008-09, the Education Intelligence Agency notes. Nearly all of this revenue came from member dues, and most of the war chest will be spent seeking to increase spending and to block those school reforms deemed most threatening to union clout.
The stakes are high, even by contemporary standards. The nation’s annual taxpayer investment in kindergarten-through-12th-grade public education runs over half a trillion dollars and accounts for more than 4 percent of gross domestic product. Meanwhile, teachers union members are starting their summer under the dark cloud of a trillion dollars in unfunded educator pension-fund liabilities.
Having endured a string of high-profile legislative setbacks around the nation, highly politicized teachers union leaders have taken to the airwaves and are prepared to invest heavily in the upcoming election cycle. The teachers unions give mostly to Democrats and in national elections nearly exclusively so. Their legislative agenda for education continues to focus on increasing spending, loosening accountability for results, avoiding the use of test scores in teacher evaluations and thwarting parental choice that could derail the public education monopoly.
In an effort to fight on their own terms, unions have turned to their lawyers. In courtrooms around the country, union attorneys seem to have adopted the legal strategies of segregationists to fight the expansion of charter schools and school choice. In the period immediately following the Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling, opponents of desegregation saw promise in pursuing a strategy of forcing desegregation advocates to win one lawsuit at a time. Obstructionists including Georgia’s Attorney General Eugene Cook proclaimed that they could hold up desegregation in the courts for “generations or centuries of litigation.”
So teachers unions are spending millions in dues revenues on legal fees suing to block charter schools and other parental-choice reforms. Charter schools have emerged as primary targets for the wrath of teacher-union leadership largely because charter teachers rarely belong to unions.
While most empirical studies show these independent public schools demonstrating results that are slightly better on aggregate than those of traditional public schools, they also show that charters serve more poor and minority students. Studies on funding disparities conclude that charters typically receive between 20 percent and 40 percent of the public funding spent on traditional public schools.
The fact that longtime American Federation of Teachers (AFT) leader Albert Shanker was an original architect of the charter school model lends irony to this offensive against charter schools around the country.
c New York’s United Federation of Teachers, which spent $2.5 million in legal fees in 2009, is suing for the second time in two years to block the city Department of Education from closing 22 struggling schools and to stop offering colocation or expansion permits to charter schools.
c Georgia’s NEA affiliate helped lead a challenge to charter schools in the state’s Supreme Court, which last month resulted in overturning a 2008 law and rejecting 16 charter schools authorized by a state commission.
Absent openings to block or close charter schools, teachers union leaders increasingly are trying to take them over. A ruling earlier this year by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board granted an AFT chapter the right to organize two new charter schools in Chicago, following two charters that had been unionized previously. Other high-profile battles to unionize charter schools are under way in Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Missouri and elsewhere.
When it comes to accountability for these results, teachers union leaders will see rapid evidence of their success or failure - evidence with profound implications for their financial bottom lines. Unfortunately, it can take far longer for the indirect effects of their efforts to become evident in the form of classroom results.
Don Soifer is executive vice president of the Lexington Institute.