Summary: When the Trump Administration nominated school choice advocate and philanthropist Betsy DeVos to serve as Secretary of Education, the backlash was immediate and extreme. And when Los Angeles’s Democratic-leaning electorate went to the polls for school board elections this spring, election spending broke records. Both outcomes were driven by two of the most vicious partisans of the progressive left, America’s teachers unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT)—both political powerhouses with multimillion-dollar war chests available for fighting any changes to a failed public education status quo.
The Trump Administration and voters in Los Angeles, California have very little in common: Hillary Clinton won over 72 percent of votes cast in L.A. County as part of the 2016 Presidential Election. However, both have battled the same foe in recent months: Teachers unions viciously opposed President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, in large part because of DeVos’s advocacy for school choice. At the same time, United Teachers Los Angeles, the teachers union representing L.A.’s teachers, spent millions trying to defend an anti-school-choice majority on the Los Angeles Unified School District board.
Teachers unions, like other government-employee unions, are a key player in the progressive infrastructure. The national teachers unions—National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers—are among the largest organizational political players in the United States. Both are heavily aligned with the Democratic Party.
But their agendas, which emphasize teacher job protections at the expense of student outcomes, have put them at odds with not only Republicans like DeVos, but also a sizable fraction of Democrats, most notably DeVos’s predecessors in the Obama Administration, John King and Arne Duncan. This unusual alignment of opposites led to a massive battle for control of the Los Angeles Unified School District’s board, a fight in which teachers unions hoped to defend their 5-2 majority over reformers.
Surprisingly, the unions lost, even after spending close to $2.3 million to hold the decisive seat. Nick Melvoin, backed by former L.A. Mayors Antonio Villaraigosa (a Democrat) and Richard Riordan (a Republican) and former Education Secretary Duncan, defeated the incumbent Steve Zimmer, who was backed by the United Teachers Los Angeles, a joint affiliate of the NEA and the AFT, and current left-wing Mayor Eric Garcetti (D).
The battles in Trump-era Washington and #Resistance-era Los Angeles over educational priorities are nothing new. For decades, teachers unions have been an obstacle to sound educational policy, whether through teacher strikes, internal corruption, or political programs. And while conservatives may bear the brunt of union political attacks, Democrats are showing that they won’t settle for union-backed futility forever.
NEA was founded in 1857 as the National Teachers Association (NTA) when 43 educators met in Philadelphia in order to advocate for public education. It changed its name to the National Education Association in 1870. Zalmond Richards—founder of Union Academy in Washington, D.C. and a faculty member at Columbian College, now known as George Washington University—became NEA’s first president.
The American Federation of Teachers grew out of the early labor movement of the 1910s, officially organizing in 1916. After New Deal-era labor laws restricted management interference in labor union organizing, the AFT grew substantially and began to engage in collective bargaining throughout the cities of the industrial Northeastern United States.
In 1957, NEA won one of its largest victories: Wisconsin became the first state to formalize collective bargaining for public-sector unions. This controversial practice allows public-employee unions to negotiate with the very people they support for election to office, tilting the balance of power in negotiations greatly in the favor of unions.
By the 1960s, the AFT and its local unions were making substantial impacts on education policy. In 1968, the AFT local in New York City led by Albert Shanker staged three strikes that shuttered 85 percent of New York’s public schools in an attempt to reverse decisions to decentralize school control. The strikes succeeded despite strong objections from New York’s African-American communities.
In 1997, Shanker, suffering from the cancer that would eventually kill him, stepped down as AFT president in favor of Sandra Feldman, then president of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT). Feldman, a longtime Shanker colleague and ally, supported the controversial 1968 strike. As UFT leader, Feldman had faced criticism for insisting on prohibiting the NYC school system from reassigning successful teachers to failing schools. Feldman was also a close ally of New York mayor David Dinkins.
During her tenure at the national AFT, Feldman worked closely with Sen. Ted Kennedy on the No Child Left Behind Act, and was a staunch opponent of school choice proposals offered by Republican-led legislatures in Michigan, Ohio, and other states.
In recent years, the two major teachers unions have explored merging into a single entity. The two unions came close to a merger accord in the late 1990s, but the effort ultimately failed—with the NEA’s independence vis-à-vis the AFL-CIO labor federation a major impediment to the proposed merger. This merger idea has refused to die, resurfacing recent years. But the AFT’s close association with the AFL-CIO and the NEA’s emphasis on state-level power centers versus AFT’s strong local unions remain persistent flies in the alphabet soup of unification. Meanwhile, five states have merged their AFT and NEA state-level branches: Florida, New York, North Dakota, Montana, and Minnesota.
Nationally, AFT puts pressure on federal and state Education Departments to maintain a hands-off policy towards teacher job protections. The AFT is also a vocal critic of reforms to teacher tenure and expansions of charter schools, with aggressive public relations campaigns against tenure reform advocates and charter schools.
Teacher tenure—that is, the long-standing practice of protecting teachers from firing after as few as two years on the job—has become a highly controversial practice in recent years. This controversy has blossomed even while AFT and the front groups it and its local unions funds, aggressively attacked tenure reformers, among whom is the well-known former journalist Campbell Brown: AFT charges that Brown was merely an ideological puppet of her husband, Republican advisor Dan Senor, earned the ire of center-left columnist Kristen Powers who vigorously condemned the suggestion as AFT smear tactics.
The AFT has also targeted charter schools and their advocates. The union presses heavily for what it calls “accountability” for these publicly funded but independently run schools: In practice, the AFT concept of accountability closely resembles an interdiction campaign against any new charters. Also, AFT funds groups like Center for Popular Democracy, who are at the heart of the “accountability narrative.” AFT President Randi Weingarten praised the defeat of a measure to prevent charter school expansion in Massachusetts in 2016; other AFT officials have gone farther. The president of AFT’s Georgia state division recently made an egregious comment, comparing Georgia’s high ranking in school choice with Chicago’s high ranking in murder rates!
Both unions ruthlessly opposed the nomination of school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education in the Trump Administration. NEA president Lily Eskelsen Garcia called Devos “more than unqualified” and characterized her as “an actual danger to students,” while AFT president Weingarten called DeVos the “most ideological, anti-public education nominee” since the Department of Education’s founding in the 1970s. Notably, the two Republican Senators who opposed DeVos (Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine) have received political contributions from the National Education Association.
However, despite blatant partisanship, teachers unions can be as hostile to Democratic school reformers as they are to Republicans: Arne Duncan and John King, who both served as Secretary of Education in the Obama Administration, faced vitriolic attacks from teachers unions for supporting teacher accountability programs involving the use of student test scores as a measurement of performance. The NEA’s Eskelsen Garcia went so far as to suggest that King was “destroying what it means to teach, what it means to learn” for backing accountability despite his predictably standard progressive positions in favor of increased school funding and expanded pre-Kindergarten programs.
Like the AFT, NEA has been a long time vocal opponent of school choice programs used to help low-income students afford schools outside of their traditional district. NEA claims that vouchers “reject students based on economic status, academic achievement, disability, or even gender.” NEA also claims that vouchers “divert essential resources from public schools to private and religious schools, while offering no real ‘choice’ for the overwhelming majority of students.” The NEA has also been critical of charter schools, asserting that they have “weak regulation and lax oversight” which should be of “major concern to students, parents, taxpayer, and communities.”
NEA has taken a stance on a wide variety of issues, both directly related to education and not: On the education side of things, it supports public child nutrition programs, the Common Core State Standards, and opposes voucher legislation. Meanwhile, it officially supports a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, Obamacare, opposed the nomination of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court, and is in favor of barring people on the secret federal “no fly” list from being able to purchase guns, a particular piece of legislation that lacked proper due process protections. What do these issues have to do with education?
NEA is not alone in taking strong positions on wildly tangential issues. For example, the AFT has passed numerous pointless resolutions supporting a range of disparate progressive policies, including divestment from fossil fuel energy companies, continued government funding of abortion provider Planned Parenthood, and opposition to the Citizens United v. FEC decision of the Supreme Court.
Of course, both major teachers unions are substantial funders of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks contributions by organizations’ employees and political action committees in federal elections, cites the NEA as the third-largest liberal organizational contributor and the AFT as the eighth-largest.
While federal law requires union contributions to federal candidates be derived from opt-in political action funds, both unions nonetheless retain substantial dues-funded political and policy programs: According to the unions’ annual filings with the Department of Labor, the NEA spent over $43 million on political activities and lobbying in its 2016 fiscal year while the AFT spent over $28 million. These programs are principally (although not necessarily exclusively) funded by member dues.
According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the AFT’s political committees spent over $92 million to help Democrats get elected to federal office, a figure supported by Federal Election Commission records from their inception through February 2017. Of AFT’s total federal contributions, over 99 percent supported Democrats. Over the same period, the NEA spent nearly $120 million on political contributions, with 97 percent supporting Democrats.
Needless to say, we find AFT and its local unions deeply enmeshed in state and local politics. The Center for Responsive Politics reports that AFT was the fifth-largest organization contributor to the Democratic Governors Association in the 2014 midterm election cycle, with $2,725,000 in contributions. AFT local unions strongly supported the mayoral election campaigns of Democratic Party-aligned mayors—Martin Walsh of Boston, James Kenney of Philadelphia, and Sylvester Turner of Houston—to name a few.
In Boston, the AFT found itself embroiled in controversy when it emerged (post-election) that the union had used a Super PAC to obscure nearly $500,000 in independent expenditures supporting Walsh. AFT used a New Jersey-based Super PAC, One New Jersey, to fund almost $500,000 in advertisements on Walsh’s behalf by “One Boston,” another Super PAC. The AFT’s Boston local union, the Boston Teachers Union, had supposedly held back from endorsing Walsh until Election Day. This obfuscation was heavily criticized on the usually liberal editorial page of the Boston Globe, which called AFT’s maneuverings “the campaign-finance equivalent of avoiding taxes by channeling one’s earnings through shell companies and stashing them in the Cayman Islands.” Ultimately, Massachusetts campaign finance regulators ordered One Boston to pay $30,000 for campaign finance infractions. (Pursuant to the settlement, One Boston formally denies wrongdoing.)
Besides contributions to candidates, parties, party committees and candidates’ committees, both teachers unions spend large sums on lobbying and contributing to non-party political organizations. The AFT is reportedly a member of the progressive donor clearinghouse Democracy Alliance, and the union has paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to this organization—this while John C. Stocks, the executive director of the NEA, serves as Democracy Alliance board chair.
In its 2016 fiscal year, the NEA disclosed over $43 million in spending on political activities and lobbying on its Department of Labor Annual Report (or Form LM-2), not including contributions classified as “contributions, gifts, and grants.” Progressive groups that NEA disclosed funding include the voter engagement group America Votes ($200,000), the liberal ballot measure research and advocacy group Ballot Initiative Strategy Center ($380,000), Democracy Alliance-aligned data vendor Catalist LLC ($627,543), left-wing opposition research and media outlet Center for Media and Democracy ($140,000), and Democratic Super PAC For Our Future ($3,000,000). The NEA also reported “contributions, gifts, and grants” to other progressive organizations, including Americans United for Change, Center for American Progress, Center for Popular Democracy, Committee on States, Corporate Action Network, and Media Matters for America.
In 2016, Department of Labor records show that the AFT spent over $28 million on political expenditures and lobbying. Notable recipients of AFT contributions and political spending include Democratic-aligned Super PACs Priorities USA Action ($1 million), Emily’s List ($625,000), and American Bridge 21st Century ($300,000); Working America, the AFL-CIO political mobilization project for non-unionized workers ($329,000); the Clinton Foundation ($250,000); progressive organizing groups including the Center for Popular Democracy ($215,000); and liberal think tanks such as the State Innovation Exchange ($200,000).
AFT’s Randi Weingarten
Rhonda “Randi” Weingarten is the president of the American Federation of Teachers. Like her predecessors Shanker and Feldman, Weingarten had led New York City’s UFT, battling then-city mayors Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg over school reforms and contracts.
Weingarten gained a reputation in New York for her aggressive defense of teachers in the city’s infamous and absurd “rubber room” disciplinary process, which keeps sidelined teachers facing termination hearings on the city payroll, sometimes for years.
When she was elevated to the presidency of the national AFT, Weingarten was praised as a reform-minded union leader, given her rhetorical openness to changes to teacher compensation and assignments. In practice, however, Weingarten and the AFT continue to resist most reforms and opposed accountability regulations advanced by President Barack Obama’s Department of Education to implement the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act.
Unsurprisingly, Weingarten is a longtime confidant of 2016 Democratic Party presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and an early supporter: AFT backed Clinton early in the Democratic Party primaries, formally endorsing her in July 2015. The AFT also contributed $500,000 to Clinton-associated nonprofits, including the Clinton Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative, during its 2016 fiscal year. In fact, commentators during the election crowned Weingarten Clinton’s Secretary of Education upon the former Secretary of State’s inevitable victory. It was not to be.
NEA’s Lily Eskelsen Garcia
NEA’s longtime president Dennis Van Roekel retired in 2014 and was replaced by former schoolteacher, Democratic congressional candidate, and NEA officer Lily Eskelsen Garcia.
After ten years teaching, Garcia was elected President of the Utah Education Association. In 1998, she ran as a Democrat for Congress, losing to incumbent Merrill Cook with 45% of the vote—this despite Garcia’s raising of nearly $1 million to support her bid.
Garcia also writes a blog called Lily’s Blackboard, an NEA-affiliated website, in which she comments on the latest education news. Recently, she has written on the necessity of making public school campuses “safe zones” for immigrant students at risk of deportation, and in favor of the federal government forcing local schools to open restrooms to members of the opposite sex.
The history of teachers’ unions cannot be told without detailing major incidents of corruption. Here are a few examples:
In the early 2000s, it emerged that Washington D.C. Teachers Union president Barbara A. Bullock had embezzled $5 million in funds from her AFT-affiliated organization. After an infamous spending spree during which Bullock purchased (among other superfluous luxuries) a $40,000 fur coat and a sterling silver champagne cooler and silver tableware worth over $50,000, all from union funds, she pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years’ in jail. This term was reduced to five years in exchange for turning state’s evidence against two of her aides. Bullock’s testimony eventually convicted James Baxter II—former union treasurer, a progressive Independent candidate for the D.C. City Council, and an aide to controversial D.C. Mayor Marion Barry—and Gwendolyn M. Hemphill, Bullock’s personal assistant and co-chair of Anthony Williams’s successful bid for re-election as D.C. Mayor. Bullock’s campaign of rampant theft went undetected for nearly ten years, hidden by a simple expedient: She refused to allow an audit of the WTU’s books.
In Miami-Dade County, Florida, the United Teachers of Dade, a joint affiliate of both NEA and AFT, was also rocked by a million-dollar corruption scandal in the early 2000s. Union president Pat Tornillo was caught stealing at least $650,000 from the union treasury. He pleaded guilty to this crime and was sentenced to over two years’ imprisonment. Among charges to the union credit card that drew suspicion were those made at the “Sinclair Intimacy Institute” (which advertised “Better Relationships, Better Sex”), for luxury items from the Neiman Marcus catalog, and for bespoke clothing made by tailors as far afield as Hong Kong and Thailand.
And while Bullock, Bullock’s cronies, and Tornillo did hard time, Auburn Teachers Association (another joint NEA/AFT affiliate) president Sally Jo Widmer escaped the hand of earthly justice through suicide. She killed herself in November 2012, just days before the union discovered hundreds of thousands of dollars in misappropriated funds. Police and union auditors found Widmer had stolen upwards of $800,000, writing herself checks for cash from union accounts, allegedly to cover huge gambling losses.
Through obstinate opposition to school reform, partisan efforts to “elect their bosses,” and even naked corruption, teachers unions have provided fodder for ample distrust. Often hiding behind the valiant efforts of hardworking schoolteachers to do their jobs in an honorable and efficient manner, the AFT and NEA run massive political operations aiming to annihilate the Republicans and take over the Democratic Party, imposing a radically progressive national agenda. However, as recent events at the national level and even in blue localities have shown, education reformers, parent advocates, and other dedicated opponents of more-of-the-same have thus far ably resisted the unions’ pressure.