Labor Watch

Teachers’ Unions vs. Teachers, Parents, and Children: Political Juggernauts

Teachers’ Unions vs. Teachers, Parents, and Children (full series)
The NEA and AFT | Political Juggernauts | Electing the Boss
“Racial Justice” Ideology | The COVID-19 Lesson

Political Juggernauts

The California Teachers Association spent a staggering $57 million to defeat a series of ballot initiatives in 2005 that sought to rein in government unions. Among these was a measure supported by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to limit the use of public-sector employee dues for political purposes. The Terminator was reduced to a Kindergarten Cop by this avalanche of spending.[1]

Education reformer Terry Moe writes, “The teachers unions have more influence on the public schools than any other group in American society.”[2] The rules under which schools operate are shaped by union demands in collective bargaining, and at the macro level, union political power dictates to a significant extent the contours and content of federal and state education policies. When the NEA was a professional association, as it had been from 1857 until it officially became a union in 1969, many of its schoolteacher members regarded collective bargaining as unsuited to their profession. Until its unionization, the NEA was largely controlled by principals, superintendents, and administrators, whose ideology was progressivism with a capital P (the rival and smaller American Federation of Teachers was an AFL-affiliated union from its launching in 1916).

Sam Lambert, the NEA’s executive secretary, provided a sneak peek into what the erstwhile professional association was about to turn into when he said in 1967, on the cusp of unionization, that the “NEA will become a political power second to no other special interest group…. NEA will organize this profession from top to bottom into logical operational units that can move swiftly and effectively with power unmatched by any other organized group in the nation.”[3]

You will notice that the education of children was not even an afterthought to Mr. Lambert. It didn’t take second, or third, or even fourth place to the NEA’s new goal: the ugly pursuit of raw political power.

Since about 1975, just under two-thirds of American teachers have been covered by collective bargaining agreements, while about 80 percent of teachers nationally belong to the NEA or AFT. (The disparity is the result of union members in the seven states without collective bargaining.)

The NEA and AFT do not merely express opinions on public issues related to schools and teachers. They roam far afield, putting money and muscle behind such causes as legal abortion and gay rights. In almost all areas their formal positions are more or less identical with those of the national Democratic Party.

For instance, the NEA supports far-reaching gun control, stating on its website that “we must limit access to guns in the first place by providing universal background checks, banning assault-style weapons, passing red flag laws, and other legislation.”[4] It also explicitly supports the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare); the controversial Equality Act, which critics say would wipe out religious liberty in the name of LGBTQ rights; Democrat-sponsored “voting rights” bills that would override state protections against voter fraud; amnesty for illegal immigrants; and more.[5]

Whether these are laudable or deplorable pieces of legislation is beside the point. The point is that the NEA is using dues money, some of it taken from unwilling members, to push an agenda that has nothing to do with the education of children.

Terry Moe, the Stanford professor and an expert on education policy and those who make it, says of teachers’ unions that “their capacity for converting money into power is way beyond what almost all interest groups can even dream of.”[6]

Teachers’ unions are “consistently among the organizations that contribute the most money to candidates and political groups.”[7] In April 2022, my friend and the Freedom Foundation’s marketing director, Joey McCabe, released a report revealing that of the $377 million the NEA took in from dues and agency fees, just $32 million went toward representing its members. The union spent $180 million-plus on political activities, lobbying, gifts, and grants, mostly to liberal nonprofits.[8]

Think about that for a second. The largest teachers’ union in America spent less than 10 percent of the money it collected from members on representing those members and about 50 percent on its pet political projects. If any private-sector business operated this way, they’d be out of business in a week. But not the NEA: this is how they’ve operated for decades!

Between 1990 and 2020, the NEA and the AFT made about $150 million in direct political contributions—of which “more than 97 percent went to liberals.”[9] The minor difference is that the AFT gives almost exclusively to Democrats, while the NEA might give one dollar in ten to Republicans.

Because teachers themselves are thinking human beings who do not march in lockstep, a huge gap exists between the political views of individual teachers and the unions that purport to speak for them. The NEA’s own internal polling has found that almost as many members consider themselves conservatives as liberals.[10] Rubbing salt into the wound, the disaffected members are forced to pay (with their dues money) for the promotion of views they find obnoxious. For instance, the Government Accountability Institute reports that between 2006 and 2020, the AFT and the NEA “donated approximately $726,200 to GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network),” which promotes “affirming education” for “LGBTQ+ students.” And between 2018 and 2021, those same two teachers’ unions sent about $3 million to groups that fund Black Lives Matter.[11]

This flies in the face of Thomas Jefferson’s maxim: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors is sinful and tyrannical.”

I fully realize that Thomas Jefferson is the worst thing in the world—a Dead White Man—but the author of the Declaration of Independence is still a hero around the offices of the Freedom Foundation.

In the next installment, like other government unions, teachers unions help select their own boss.

This article is abridged version of chapter 4 of Freedom Is the Foundation: How We Are Defeating Progressive Tyranny by Aaron Withe (Post Hill Press, 2023). The citations were renumbered for this version. Subheadings and images were added for the web version.

[1] Steven Malanga, Shakedown: The Continuing Conspiracy Against the American Taxpayer (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2010), p. 54.

[2] Terry M. Moe, Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2011), p. 6.

[3] G. Gregory Moo, Power Grab: How the National Education Association Is Betraying Our Children (Washington, DC: Regnery, 1999), Prologue.

[4]  “Gun Violence Prevention,” National Education Association,, accessed March 28, 2022.

[5] “Our Issues,” National Education Association,, accessed March 28, 2022.

[6] Terry M. Moe, Special Interest, p. 280.

[7] “Teachers Unions,” OpenSecrets,

[8] Joey McCabe, “Never Mind its Lies: The NEA is Nothing but the Left’s Piggy Bank,” April 21, 2022,  /

[9] Jessica Anderson and Lindsey Burke, “Teachers union has become an arm of the abortion-rights left. Conservatives should quit,” USA Today, August 26, 2019.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Teachers Unions: From Academics to Activists,” Government Accountability Institute, January 10, 2022, p. 3.

Aaron Withe

Aaron Withe is the chief executive officer of the Freedom Foundation.
+ More by Aaron Withe

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