This year marks the 30th anniversary of the decision by the National Education Association (NEA) to become a major player in politics. While 1976 was the first year that the nation’s largest teachers union endorsed a presidential candidate (Jimmy Carter, who was promising to deliver creation of the union’s cherished federal Department of Education), it wasn’t long before the NEA’s political activity became a major part of its raison d’etre.
Over these past three decades, the NEA has carpet-bombed the political landscape with money. In just the one-year period from September 2004 through August 2005, the NEA spent $25 million on political activities and lobbying, and another $65.5 million on contributions, gifts and grants.
From 1990 through 2002, the NEA was the nation’s second biggest political giver. (Unions comprised six of the 10 top political contributors.)
The NEA’s political support goes almost exclusively to the Democratic Party. Between 1990 and 2002, 95% of NEA candidate and party donations went to Democrats. After the 1976 Carter endorsement, they’ve been strong backers of every subsequent Democratic presidential nominee. As University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato once observed, “It’s fair to say that the Democrats would be nowhere without them.”
What have the NEA’s tens of millions of dollars bought? The first prize was the 1980 establishment of the Department of Education itself. In subsequent years, there have been repeated hikes in education spending at the federal, state and local levels.
The congressional debate over creating the Department of Education—which took place relatively soon after the NEA started its move to become a major political force—showed that there once was great diversity of opinion among congressional Democrats regarding education policy. In 1979, many Democrats openly voiced opposition to this top union priority. But imagine a Democrat in Congress today saying what former Democratic Rep. Pat Schroeder of Colorado said then: “No matter what anyone says, the Department of Education will … meddle in everything. I do not want that.” Schroeder, of course, was a very liberal Democrat.
Or imagine a Democrat saying today what Democratic Rep. Joe Earley of Masschusetts said then: “A national department may actually impede the innovation of local programs as it attempts to establish uniformity throughout the nation.”
After several decades of massive NEA political spending, this diversity has disappeared from the Democratic Party. Today, any elected Democrat who wishes to move up in the party’s ranks realizes he must toe the NEA line on education policy. That means supporting ever-escalating spending, opposing school choice, advocating smaller class size (i.e., hiring more teachers) and blocking all efforts at accountability, such as merit pay. Recognizing the power of the NEA, many Republicans shy away from speaking the truth on these issues as well.
One thing the NEA union leadership has not been able to buy is complete fealty of its own membership. A majority of teachers voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Polls today generally indicate that around 60% of the union’s members consider themselves either Republicans or independents.
Beyond aiding politicians directly, the NEA sends cash to groups that hold meetings and dinners for elected officials. For example, in a 12-month period beginning in September 2004, the NEA sent $5,000 to the National Conference of Black Mayors and $8,200 to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Foundation for State Legislatures.
The NEA also provides funding to policy and advocacy groups, netting handsome returns. In the September 2004 to August 2005 period, the union shipped $45,000 to League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). LULAC in turn urged that yet more money be pumped into public schools. The NEA also sent $45,000 to the Economic Policy Institute, which has produced studies and statements arguing for—you guessed it—lots more spending on public schools.
New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and other left-wing commentators have tried to make the case that only conservatives or Republicans are susceptible to money-for-policy schemes. Writing about the burgeoning scandal centering on the sleazy Jack Abramoff, Krugman said: “Reporters and editors will be tempted to give equal time to these accusations [that liberals and Democrats are involved], however weak the evidence, in an effort to appear ‘balanced.’ They should resist the temptation. If this is overwhelmingly a story about Republican lobbyists and conservative think tanks, as I believe it is—there isn’t any Democratic equivalent of Jack Abramoff—that’s what the public deserves to be told.”
In the coming months, Congress and the nation will closely reexamine the role of money in politics. It would be a shame if we turn the blind eye that Krugman suggests and nobody asks questions about the mega political bucks of the National Education Association, and indeed of all organized labor.