Teachers' Union Fierce Foe of School-Choice

THE KEY battlegrounds in the war for school-choice in America are state capitals across the country. In state after state, the key opponent of school-choice is the same—public school teachers' unions, in most cases the state affiliates of the National Education Association (NEA).

Education reform advocates, like the Catholic Church, support school-choice because it allows parents to choose among public, private, or religious schools. Hence, passage of choice proposals would mean a dramatic shift in power away from the public school establishment, which is controlled by the NEA.

In the NEA, school-choice proponents have a fearsome foe. With 2.1 million members, the NEA recently surpassed the Teamsters as the largest union in America. It has members in literally every community, while its “unified” dues structure ensures it a steady flow of cash from teachers across the country. Every NEA member pays a fixed percentage of his or her salary to the national union, which in turn parcels the money out to its 52 state-level affiliates and 13,000 local affiliates around the country. The average teacher pays about $400 each year to the NEA. In 1993, for example, the national union kept $96, and sent the rest to the states and localities. Since dues are set as a fixed percentage of teachers’ salaries, the NEA has a vested interest in agitating for higher teacher salaries.

Much of these funds are put to use in the political arena. NEA giving is overwhelmingly Democratic, in keeping with the union's tradition. The union at the national level has been closely intertwined with the Democratic party since 1976, when it issued its first presidential endorsement, supporting Jimmy Carter, who repaid the NEA by creating the U.S. Department of Education. In 1994, the NEA PAC gave $4.4 million to congressional candidates in 1994, 98.7 percent of it to Democrats.

This spending is supplemented by NEA affiliates at the state and local level. For example, Indiana's state and local associated PACs raised nearly $700,000 from the 41,000 Indiana members in 1992 and spent nearly half a million on state and local candidates. NEA members routinely account for about one quarter of the delegates to the Democratic National Convention.

“You are looking at the absolute heart and center of the Democratic Party,” a leading Republican and former Education Secretary William Bennett, a frequent NEA sparring partner, told Forbes magazine.

“The teachers union lobbies legislators on a massive scale, they run sophisticated grassroots campaigns,” said Christopher Freind, the executive director of the REACH Alliance, a pro-school-choice grassroots organization based in Harrisburg, Pa. “They have a highly-paid staff here in Pennsylvania who do nothing but worry about how to defeat school-choice. They are a professional political organization."

The NEA also fights against merit pay for teachers, accountability assessments, longer school days and a longer school calendar. The union also agitates against issues not directly related to education—like tax cuts, spending reductions, and efforts to curb illegal immigration. The NEA was even supportive of the failed Clinton health care plan and the 1993 Clinton budget that included nearly $240 billion in tax increases.

The NEA does not mince words when it comes to the voucher issue. “Vouchers are not about choice, freedom, equity, or learning,” says a NEA pamphlet called “Vouchers: What's at Stake?" “Vouchers would subsidize educational elitism, set up a two-tiered school system, divide the nation, and deny the certainty of opportunity for all."

“Vouchers are a thinly-disguised attempt to destroy our country's public schools,” reads a brochure from the NEA's Center for the Preservation of Public Education. “Vouchers would transfer scarce tax dollars from public to private schools. The easiest to educate students, primarily from middle-class and affluent families, would be selected by private schools. Public schools—their funding greatly diminished—would be left with the poorest, most difficult to educate students."

“The NEA supports anything that means more taxes and bigger government,” said U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon (R-Pa.), himself a former public school teacher. “The NEA is nothing more than an arm of the Democratic Party, and it uses its members’ money to push Democrat issues that have absolutely nothing to do with students or classroom teachers.”

The NEA was formed in 1837 as a trade association, and it existed in that mode for nearly a century. In 1961, however, President Kennedy signed an executive order permitting unions to bargain collectively on behalf of federal employees. Most states soon followed the federal example, and the NEA, along with the smaller American Federation of Teachers, became the national union for America's teachers.

The NEA's vast influence is being put to the test on the school-choice issue in nearly every corner of the United States. Notable school-choice victories have been rare, but momentum has been slowly building. Milwaukee has had a modified school plan— which does not include religious schools—in place since 1991. Arizona enacted a pilot program; and Ohio recently started a program allowing poor residents of Cleveland to choose between public, private and religious schools.

On the other side of the ball, however, the NEA has won some resounding high-profile victories on choice. In 1993, the California Teachers Association spent a whopping $12 million to defeat Proposition 174, a school-choice ballot initiative in California. School-choice efforts have also been beaten back in about 15 other states.

NEA state offices typically bring in all available resources to the choice issue, using their own staff as well as contract lobbyists to work the legislators, while activist teachers lead grassroots efforts in the local community. At key moments, too, the union can be counted on to barrage the state with radio, television, and newspaper ads. Once the fight is over, they have the kind of activist operation that can reward friends and punish enemies. Union members go door-to-door at election time, and they can provide poll-watchers on election day in critical districts

One favored tactic of the union is to set up dummy ad-hoc “coalitions" to fight a certain issue, keeping the NEA and its affiliates out of the public eye. In one high-profile example, the union was by far the largest donor to “Taxpayers Against Proposition 187" a California ballot initiative to limit illegal immigration. In 1992, the Pennsylvania State Education Association set up “Citizens for Real Tax Reform" to fight plans for property tax relief.

“You have to peel back layers and layers before you realize that the union is bankrolling these kinds of coalitions,” said Guy Ciarocchi, public affairs director of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, who has tangled with the union on school-choice.

Pennsylvania is perhaps the best example of the NEA's success. The state would seem ripe for a school-choice victory. Taxpayers have been very generous with public education funding—the state ranks in the top five nationally in per-pupil education spending ($8,000 annually). By any measure, however, public school performance in the state has been poor. Pennsylvania ranks in the bottom five nationally in such bellwether education categories as SAT scores, student literacy, graduation rates, and students going on to college. Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican, has made school-choice a top priority, and Republicans control both Houses of the legislature.

Yet school-choice failed twice in Pennsylvania in 1995, each time by razor-thin margins. School-choice advocates acknowledge NEA and PSEA political and organizational skills, but they also charge that the union engaged in a misinformation campaign. “They have successfully played on people's fears,” said Ciarocchi. “They misinform the public about property taxes and about the separation of church and state,” said Freind. “They do not want to debate the merits of the issue because they cannot win on the merits."

PSEA gave more than $184,600 to Pennsylvania legislators in l995-96. That kind of money translates into clout in the Capitol. “There are many inner-city legislators who will not support school-choice because they are afraid of a primary challenge" bankrolled by PSEA, said Ciarocchi. “Everyone who works on this issue can tell you at least one story about a legislator who tells us privately that they agree with us on the issue, but who will not support us because they worry about being targeted by PSEA."

“The school-choice side is playing catch-up,” he continued. “In many cases, the school-choice advocates are lead by church-related organizations and by loose grassroots coalitions. Well, the archdiocese does not have a PAC, we do not endorse candidates, we do not have precinct workers, we do not have poll-watchers. We are less politically sophisticated."

“It may take us a while, but eventually we will win, and school-choice will become a reality,” said Freind. “Public opinion is turning against the teachers’ unions. People are tired of paying higher and higher property taxes for public schools that are getting worse and worse."

Michael Barbera is based in Washington, D.C.