By Evan Grossman | Watchdog.org
Richard Coppock has taught in the Bethlehem School District in Pennsylvania for 24 years, but left the local union in 2001 over what he calls “philosophical differences.”
In his mind, the union too often makes politics its top priority.
“I became a teacher to teach kids and hopefully make a difference in their lives,” Coppock said. “If I wanted to be a political activist I would have chosen another profession.”
Whether they support the union’s political agenda or not, millions of other teachers across the country helped to fund the National Education Association’s powerful political machine last year. According to forms filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, NEA sank $9.8 million into the NEA Advocacy Fund, a super PAC that can funnel member dues toward political interests.
While dues that teachers unions collect from members — sometimes as much as $1,000 per year — cannot be used to fund a political action committee, or PAC, a super PAC is more loosely regulated and can be funded by dues. Super PAC money can’t be spent on an individual candidate, per se, but it can be spent on media that influences the outcome of an election.
NEA did not respond to multiple inquiries about its super PAC, which last year sent more than $6 million to Waterfront Strategies, a media and political advertising agency in Washington, D.C., known to be a favorite among Democrats from the White House on down. Part of Waterfront’s services include creating attack ads that shape elections around the country, something not all union members may support.
In all, the NEA Advocacy Fund made almost $10 million in contributions to committees and national parties last year, according to OpenSecrets.org, the majority of it going to Waterfront, which was also a top destination for American Federation of Teachers political spending. The AFT Solidarity Fund paid the firm $433,799 last year.
Every year, teachers unions direct millions of dollars to power one of the country’s most powerful political engines. Those expenditures do not always directly fund education policy. Instead, they are used to prop up political and ideological groups, too.
According to DOL records, the New York City branch of the AFT spent $29.1 million on representational activities, political activities and lobbying in 2014. Included in that was a $25,000 payment to the National Action Network, a partisan organization that claims to support education, among other social issues. But of the 160 press releases NAN published since the beginning of 2014 trumpeting its advocacy wins across the country, only one had to do with education.
NEA also made more than $26 million in contributions to progressive organizations during the 2014 election cycle, including $334,500 to America Votes, $235,000 to the Progressive States Network, and $150,000 to the Center for American Progress, according to the watchdog group Free to Teach.
“Forcing teachers to pay union dues or fees simply for the privilege of having a job in the public schools is a clear violation of First Amendment rights,” said Alexandra Freeze, senior director of communications and advocacy for the Association of American Educators, a national, non-union professional organization that works to represent teachers and educational advocacy.
“Union dues pay for everything from bloated union boss salaries to political mailers,” she said. “The fact that teachers in certain states are required to bankroll this activity is flat out un-American.”
Teachers and their unions have splintered over the years and their political affiliations may be a reason for some defections.
For the second straight year, there are more non-unionized teachers working in American schools than there are unionized members. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as cited by Unionstats.com and the Education Intelligence Agency blog, only 49 percent of the 4,535,249 teachers working in 2014 were full-share union members. Just 10 percent of new teachers last year joined unions, furthering a growing trend. In 1983, the unionization rate was almost 60 percent, according to labor statistics.
The AAE found in its 2015 member survey that 97 percent of its members support public charter schools, 94 percent support course choice for students, and 56 percent support Empowerment Scholarship Accounts — all issues to which teachers unions are fundamentally opposed.
Coppock insists he is not a “union buster” and while he shuns the politicking of the NEA and its local affiliates, the Bethlehem Education Association and the Pennsylvania Education Association, he is a member of the Keystone Teachers Association, which was organized in 1993 by teachers whose personal beliefs conflicted with that of unions.
“As the NEA and AFT increase their political involvement, they push these views and agendas onto their members and a strong argument could be made that their increased pressure is a deterrent among their members and the need for teachers to want to disassociate themselves from that part of the union’s activities, and essentially, the unions completely,” KEYTA Executive Director Carol Yeagy said.
“We hear quite regularly that educators really just want to be supported in their teaching capacities and want to be left alone with regard to politics.”