After Democratic Mayor Adrian Fenty lost his reelection bid in Washington, D.C.'s primary last month, a reporter asked Michelle Rhee, the chancellor of D.C. public schools, if her controversial reforms had an impact on the loss. Rhee, who infuriated teachers unions when she closed 21 D.C. schools and fired 241 D.C. educators (including her own children's principal), said: "Without a doubt."
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) spent $360,800 in radio ads for Fenty's Democratic opponent, councilman Vincent Gray, and more in unregulated expenditures. Even Minnesota's conservative governor, Republican Tim Pawlenty, issued a scathing statement blaming the unions for Fenty's loss, saying, "What the teachers' unions really care about is getting more money for jobs they can't lose at schools that produce students who are not prepared to compete."
As a few politicians like Fenty attempt to buck Democratic special interests and the party faces possibly losing its majority in Washington come November, teachers unions are realizing that their own grip on political power is tenuous. But a frenzy of contributions ahead of this year's midterm elections shows that unions and their millions remain determined to exert vast influence over the outcome.
David Levinthal, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics, said teachers unions have two choices in a political climate where even a Democratic president is calling for charter schools and performance-based teacher pay. They can withdraw their money to teach Democratic reformers a lesson, or pour more money into Democratic campaigns to keep the party beholden to them.
Nationally, unions are taking the latter approach. In 2006 midterm elections, the AFT spent just over $2 million on federal races. This year, it has spent $1.9 million (donating only $8,000 to Republicans) and is on track to well exceed its 2006 amount.
In New York, though, the state teachers union is punishing state legislators who cross it. After some union-endorsed legislators voted to cap property taxes and lift the cap on charter schools, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) announced it would withhold endorsements from those offending politicians. The union usually examines 20 bills when grading legislators, but this year it increased that number to 30-telling legislators it was not acceptable to vote for otherwise favorable bills that included provisions, like the tax cap, that the unions disliked. NYSUT even withheld an endorsement of Democrat Andrew Cuomo, a longtime favorite it has previously endorsed who is this year running for governor, because he expressed support for the property tax cap and, according to NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn, made "troubling" statements about public employees.
Cuomo, currently the state's attorney general, is investigating public employees for padding their pension deals, and those pension deals have set legislators and unions at odds. States can no longer afford the generous pension plans they gave teachers in the 1990s, when teacher salaries were lower and the economy was booming. A Manhattan Institute report calculates that states owe a collective $933 billion in total unfunded liabilities to teachers. In the states with the biggest pension gaps, politicians are struggling to enact reforms like raising the retirement age or switching to 401(k) plans for new hires. As one result, the teachers unions are withholding endorsements and funds.
In Illinois, where the state's estimated $73 billion unfunded pension liability is the worst crisis in the nation, unions punished Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn for supporting pension reform: They endorsed Quinn's primary challenger and showered him with $332,500. Quinn won the primary but has yet to win an endorsement from the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT). Like NYSUT, IFT has also withdrawn endorsements from "old friends" who "betrayed us" by voting for pension reform and not passing an income tax increase. "It's here now," Fred Siegel, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, said of the pension crisis. "You feel the pressure, but two years from now it's going to be even more intense."
And yet, although teachers unions altogether have poured at least $2.9 million into Democratic races this season, a more diverse population pays the union dues. In a fall 2009 survey, Education Next and Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance found that 37 percent of public-school teachers support charter schools and 30 percent support vouchers. And what do public-school teachers think of the unions? Almost one-fourth of them (24 percent) say they have a negative effect on schools.
Tony Guzzaldo, a public-school teacher in Illinois, supports the pension reform and education reform that the unions fight. He read an article in the satirical newspaper The Onion that mocked teachers for marching on the Illinois capitol, chanting "Raise our taxes!" and was shocked to find that it was actually true: In April 15,000 teachers marched in Illinois, demanding a tax increase to pay for pensions and school funding. Guzzaldo notes that 43 percent of Chicago schoolteachers draw three-figure salaries. Maybe it's time for a pay cut, he says: "I don't need a life of luxury in retirement, especially on the taxpayer's dime. Sometimes you have to put community ahead of your own interests."
House and Senate races where Democratic candidates are among the top 20 recipients of union funds:
Scott Murphy (NY-20) $27,500
Mark Critz (PA-12) $25,000
Dina Titus (NV-03) $20,500
Steve Driehaus (OH-01) $20,000
Kathy Dahlkemper (PA-03) $20,000
Bill Owens (NY-23) $17,500
Alan Grayson (FL-08) $17,000
Harry Reid (Senator-NV) $17,000
Source: Center for Responsive Politics and Federal Election Commission