Special Report

The NEA’s Progressive Turn

The NEA's influence over public education remains in decline.

By 12.9.11

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Last month, the National Education Association claimed a substantial victory when it and other public-sector unions convinced Ohio voters to repeal the state's ban on collective bargaining. Although most voters were more likely annoyed that Gov. John Kasich and the Republican-controlled legislature denied such privileges to unions representing local police officers and firefighters than with any effort to curb teachers' union power, the successful repeal allowed the union's president, Dennis Van Roekel, to proclaim that citizens "sent an unequivocal message to those who play politics with the lives of teachers… we got your back."

But this election, along with the successful recall of a school reform-minded Michigan state legislator, and the NEA's efforts to co-opt the Occupy Wall Street movement, offers a glimpse into the strategy the nation's largest teachers' union will use to battle with both the nation's school reform movement and fiscal conservatives inside the nation's statehouses -- especially those in the Midwest, where the majority of its rank-and-file members reside -- over the future of America's woeful public schools.

Since March, when governors in Ohio and Wisconsin successfully passed bans on requiring districts to bargain collectively with NEA and American Federation of Teachers affiliates, the NEA has taken a more militant approach to beating back reformers. In July, the NEA successfully enacted a two-fold increase in the member dues dedicated to political campaigning. The $10 a member increase adds another $40 million to the union's war chest, easily boosting its position as one of the biggest donors in American politics. Through its super-PAC -- the recipient of $5.4 million in member funds since last year -- the NEA is looking to take advantage of the Citizens United ruling and further leverage its prime role as an electoral big spender.

The NEA's state affiliates are pouring millions into combating school reform groups such as the tough-talking Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst and the quieter American Federation for Children, as well as beat back reform-minded governors and movement conservatives opposed to public-sector unions. In Ohio, the NEA affiliate there poured $5 million into something called We Are Ohio as part of the successful repeal of the collective bargaining ban.

In Idaho, the national union has ladled $157,000 to Idahoans for Responsible Education Reform, which has worked closely with the union's Gem State chapter to put up a voter referendum aimed at overturning a series of reforms -- including banning collective bargaining -- successfully championed this year by tough-talking Gov. Butch Otter and the state's school superintendent, Tom Luna. Meanwhile the NEA's Pennsylvania affiliate, which is battling against Gov. Tom Corbett's efforts to launch a new school choice initiative, increased its political spending by 9 percent (to $14.8 million), according to the union's LM-2 filing with the U.S. Department of Labor.

But it is the NEA's efforts to cozy up to the Occupy Wall Street crowd and other progressive groups that generally disdain their center-left (and more often, school reform-minded) counterparts that has become its latest strategy. Since its 2009-2010 fiscal year, the NEA and its affiliates have poured $516,625 into progressive outfits in order to gain their support. This included $46,625 to Progressive Majority (whose leadership include former National Abortion Rights Action League big Gloria Totten, and Service Employees International Union political director Jon Youngdahl), and $15,000 to Good Jobs First, which pats itself on the back for tracking tax breaks given to companies (even as the NEA and the AFT have also feasted off public coffers).

The biggest recipient of the NEA's largesse is ProgressNow, a St. Paul, Minn., grassroots outfit started eight years ago by Howard Dean acolyte Bobby Clark and Michael Huttner (a former Clinton administration official who is as notorious for his sparring with columnist Michelle Malkin as he is for his evangelism for lefty causes). With a board featuring such Democrat operatives as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's former chief of staff, Susan McCue, and America Votes Executive Director Greg Speed -- ProgressNow and its 18 state chapters has made its bones by focusing strictly on the state and local political mobilizing that rivals such as MoveOn.org eschew. This makes it well-suited for the kind of state-targeted efforts the NEA is undertaking to preserve its influence.

The NEA, along with its bellicose Michigan affiliate, handed over $20,000 to ProgressNow's Michigan affiliate, during its last fiscal year. ProgressNow, in turn, gave the union its money's worth by rallying its members to help successfully recall a state representative, Paul Scott, whose success in passing an array of school reform measures aroused the NEA's ire. The fact that ProgressNow and other progressive groups helped the NEA best Rhee's StudentsFirst (which backed Scott to the tune of $73,000) and accuse her group of opposing gay rights, likely made the union even more grateful.

The NEA's Ohio affiliate tossed $20,000 to ProgressNow's Ohio branch, where it played a less-significant role in the repeal of the state's collective bargaining ban (except when one of its memos declaring that its allies couldn't count on what was an eventual victory was leaked to the Washington Post's Greg Sargent). But given the successes, one can expect the NEA to provide ProgressNow even more financial backing.

It wasn't always this way. Unlike the rival AFT (which is legendary for building coalitions with groups such as the NAACP) the NEA has spent most of its 154-year history using its ties to education establishment players such as the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (a beneficiary $2.3 million in NEA largesse over the past seven years alone) to influence education policy. Over time, the union's role (along with the AFT) as the leading player in Democratic Party politics, along with its war chests, armies of rank-and-file workers, relationships with suburban school districts, and location in the Midwest far away from reform hotbeds on the East and West Coasts, all but assured that it would keep states and districts servile.

But while the NEA and AFT slept, the school reform movement grew from a collection of Southern governors and big city mayors to a wider movement. Their success in passing the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001 marked the slow decline of the NEA's influence in education policy. As the school reform movement gained traction, especially within the very Democratic Party circles the NEA once dominated, the union took on a new strategy: Reaching outside the cozy circle of the education establishment to build ties to other elements within the Democratic Party's activist wing.

Between 2005-2006 and 2008-2009, the NEA has increased its donations to nonprofits by nearly a six-fold, from $4 million to $26 million. But it hasn't worked out as well as the NEA expected. The Center for the American Progress, which picked up $110,000 in 2008-2009 (and another $25,000 last year), has been one of the foremost players in the school reform movement; other groups such as Al Sharpton's National Action Network has backed the expansion of charter schools, one of the NEA's bête noires. Meanwhile the NEA's ties to the ostensibly now-defunct Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN, the subject of yesterday's Spectator report), to which it gave $396,452, gave the union a black eye after the group's alleged voter fraud, advice on tax-dodging, and other misdeeds came out two years ago.

While the NEA's current efforts to curry progressives are bearing some fruit so far, it may not last. It does nothing to win over the average voter, who has no sympathy with teachers' unions, and are frustrated with the fact that one out of every three fourth-graders is functionally illiterate. Nor does it work wonders with centrist and liberal Democrats, who are among the most supportive of the reforms the union opposes. While they have been unwilling to back collective bargaining bans, they have been just as willing to team up more-conservative reformers and fiscally conservative governors on ending the array of degree- and seniority-based compensation, defined-benefit pensions, and near-lifetime employment that has contributed to the woeful performance of traditional public schools in improving student achievement (and has saddled taxpayers at least $1.4 trillion in pension deficits and unfunded retired teacher healthcare that will take decades to pay down).

Meanwhile the NEA has to worry that progressives may eventually catch on to the fact that the union is one of the very fat cats these left-leaners detest, with 437 employees earning at least $100,000 a year, according its 2010-2011 federal labor filing, four more than were on the payroll last year; union president Van Roekel himself earned $460,060, a 16 percent increase over the previous year. The NEA's own inability to deal honestly with members about its fiscal activities -- including its unwillingness to explain how two former employees siphoned off $227,626 over five years and the collapse of its once-powerful Indiana affiliate -- makes the union seem no better than some of the Wall Street outfits progressives decry.

In short, the NEA's influence over American public education will remain in decline.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.