Education Empire Strikes Back: Teachers unions take aim at reform-minded GOP governor


By Eric Boehm |

The ads use deliberately inclusive language — lots of “we” and “us” — to make it sound as if your neighbor was talking to you through the TV screen.

Tom Corbett turned his back on us, left us behind,” intones the female narrator on one ad running now in Pennsylvania. “We can’t afford four more years.

This isn’t exactly a new idea, of course. Political ads have been using this same trick for years, a subtle linguistic maneuver intended to make viewers subconsciously trust the message of the ad while gently applying peer pressure.

“We” feel this way. If you don’t, you’re not one of “us.”

But the “we” behind this Pennsylvania ad and the “us” funding others that similarly attack incumbent Republican governors in Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and other states is actually a national coalition of public-sector unions.

ON THE ATTACK: Ads like this one, which aired in Pennsylvania during the final weeks of the campaign, were paid for by groups with names like “PA Families First” and “Michigan For All.” But they were really funded by the big bucks of big labor.

The National Education Association, or NEA, and the American Federation of Teachers, or AFT, have combined to spend more than $25 million during this election cycle, much of it trying to influence the outcome of key gubernatorial races Tuesday.

Education is primarily funded at the local and state level,” Karen White, political director of the NEA, told Education Week. “That’s really the reason we’re engaged at that level.

More competitive gubernatorial contests are on the 2014 electoral schedule than competitive U.S. Senate races. Control of the Senate likely comes down to no more than three or four races, while, by some counts, there are as many as a dozen “toss-up” gubernatorial races.

Governors also have a more profound effect on education policy, much of which is still set and funded by the states. A reform-minded governor can lead the way on an anti-union agenda, while a pro-union governor can ensure four years of wandering in the desert for those who want to shake-up the education establishment.

Larry Sand, a retired California teacher of 24 years and president of California Teachers Empowerment Network, said the spending is a sign teachers unions feel threatened.

“They’re spending a lot, and the reason they’re spending a lot is because they’re threatened by the reform movement, which is a state deal,” Sand told this week.

And where Democrats are merely trying to hold on to a Senate majority against a rising tide that seems to favor Republicans, Democrats have the chance to make real gains in governors’ mansions across the country.

Pennsylvania is probably the best example of that dynamic. Incumbent Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, is easily the most vulnerable chief executive in the country heading into Election Day.

Teachers unions in Pennsylvania have been unhappy with Corbett, practically since the day he took office, but now they’re getting air cover from the national level. In the midst of the gubernatorial race was a major flare-up in the slow-burn financial crisis at the Philadelphia School District, which is run by a state-appointed body called the School Reform Commission.

FOLLOW THE MONEY: the NEA sent $560,000 in mid-July to a political action group known as PA Families First – though, oddly enough, the group is headquartered within the hive of lobbyists known as K St. in Washington, D.C. – and then tossed another $20,000 to the group in mid-September

According to FEC filings, the NEA sent $560,000 in mid-July to a political action group known as PA Families First — though, oddly enough, the group is headquartered within the hive of lobbyists known as K St. in Washington, D.C. — and then tossed another $20,000 to the group in mid-September.

PA Families First has used the money to launch waves of attack ads at Corbett — most prominently featuring an often-debunked claim about the state cutting $1 billion from the education budget under his watch. The group has also been funded with $500,000 from the American Federation of Teachers, another $500,000 from the Service Employees International Union, $550,000 from AFSCME, which represents government employees at local and state levels.

It’s a common formula applied in state-after-state during the past few months: the NEA and other national unions writing big checks to state-based PACs that use the money to back Democratic gubernatorial candidates.

There’s Michigan For All — also based on K St. in Washington, D.C., by the way — which received $200,000 from the NEA in September and has been running ads against Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and in favor of Mark Schauer, the Democratic challenger.

The same group got more than $2 million from AFSCME — which certainly wants to punish Snyder for unsuccessfully trying to institute public-sector union reforms in Michigan similar to those that were passed by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — and $250,000 from the AFT.

Screen shot of FEC filings

HEY BIG SPENDER: The NEA spent well into six-figures on races around the country, but the union is focused on winning key governors races on Tuesday.

Other vulnerable Republican incumbents, such as Florida Gov. Rick Scott and Walker, have seen similar public-sector-union-financed opposition campaigns.

Since Jan. 1, campaigns and committees have created 1,006 distinct spots touching on the issue of education. They’ve been aired a cumulative total of 430,000 times on broadcast TV alone, NEA political director Karen White bragged in a memo obtained by Politico last week.

According to White, 19 percent of campaign ads in the 2014 cycle touched on education, up from 12 percent in 2012.

Unions are not just blindly backing Democrats and attacking Republicans. They are carefully picking which races to focus on and who to go after.

In California, where a pair of Democrats are set to square off for state superintendent —basically an elected secretary of Education — unions are engaged in an inter-party battle to defend the incumbent, Tom Torlakson, from a reform-minded Democratic challenger, Marshall Tuck, who wants to end teacher tenure.

That’s a hot issue in the Sunshine State right now. Teachers’ unions are involved in appealing a court decision earlier this year that voided tenure laws because they hurt low-income and minority students in poor schools.

Screen shot of FEC filings for NEA

MORE MONEY: The NEA gave $350,000 to a front group called Arizona Wins, which is a factor in the state’s attorney general race. Unions are focused on state-level and down-ballot races this year.

In nearby Arizona, the NEA has contributed $350,000 to Arizona Wins, another of those local-sounding-but-really-not political groups. The hot race there is for attorney general; unions want to elect Felecia Rotellini, who has promised to make it easier for Arizonans to vote. It’s not an education issue, directly, but part of a longer-term political strategy for a wide range for Democratic political allies.

Teachers’ unions have been able to out-spend just about anyone during this campaign, but Tuck might be an exception.

“The unions are spending tons to not let Tuck win, but there’s a lot of private money behind Tuck, so I think it’s about even,” said Sand.

All told, the NEA’s super PAC has spent more than $17 million during the 2013-14 election cycle, according to federal campaign finance reports. Much of it went to affiliated groups like those we’ve already detailed, but more than $2.9 million went directly to the Democratic Governors Association.

The NEA spent about $9 million on the 2011-12 election cycle, making one thing clear — The financial connection between teachers unions and Democratic politicians in many states is stronger now than it has ever been.

The AFT’s numbers are smaller but no less staggering. The union’s main political action committee has spent more than $9 million in this cycle, with more than $687,000 in spending during the first two weeks of October alone.

Those late-breaking contributions mostly went to progressive PACs operating in Colorado, Illinois, Michigan and Ohio, according to records filed with the IRS. The AFT routes their political spending through a 527 group called AFT Solidarity, which files reports with the IRS, not the FEC.

This is one of the most critical elections in recent memory,” NEA President Lily Eskelsen García told supporters in an email last week.

The NEA and their friends are certainly putting their money — lots of it — where their mouths are.