Controversy Heats Up Over NEA Spending, Donations

Published March 1, 2006

Education politics started the new year with a bang, courtesy of the Wall Street Journal and the nation’s largest labor union, the National Education Association (NEA).

“The NEA gave $65 million in its members’ dues to left-liberal groups last year,” the paper declared in a January 3 editorial. “We wonder if the union’s rank-and-file stand in unity behind the laundry list of left-to-liberal recipients of money that comes out of their pockets.”

The NEA reacted quickly, with President Reg Weaver writing in a January 13 letter to the editor that “the $65 million figure was the total amount the NEA spent on grants and contributions. Of that, $64.2 million–about 98 percent–went straight to our state and local affiliates for education programs and member services.”

An examination of the “contributions, gifts, and grants” section of the NEA’s LM-2–a financial report the NEA and other unions must file with the U.S. Department of Labor, which recently started to require the kind of detailed information the WSJ used for its editorial–revealed that, in addition to the money given to local and state affiliates, many NEA contributions did indeed go to groups commonly considered left-leaning.

Trading Barbs

In addition to recipients listed in the WSJ story, such as Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow PUSH Coalition and Amnesty International, the NEA sent contributions to the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), which defends affirmative action and opposed Judge Samuel Alito’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court; the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which opposes Social Security privatization and seeks universal health care; and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Media Awards.

Despite donations to these and other groups, however, the reports suggest Weaver was right. Most of the items on the list were grants from the NEA’s national headquarters to state affiliates and “UniServs”–state-based offices, employing about 1,800 people nationwide, that serve as local administrative offices for the union.

But while the WSJ and NEA exchanged accusations, others who follow teacher union finances began to look not just at where the NEA sent contributions, gifts, and grants, but at the nature of all union expenditures.

Deceptive Disclosures

On January 5, Mike Antonucci, who runs the Education Intelligence Agency (EIA), an organization that tracks teacher unions, wrote on the group’s blog that the WSJ “was wrong to portray the $65 million as a total amount distributed to liberal political groups.” He went on to say, however, that many NEA contributions to political organizations were not accounted for under contributions, gifts, and grants, so the union’s number, too, was deceptive.

“NEA’s contributions to political advocacy groups do not reside solely in the ‘contributions, gifts, and grants’ category,” Antonucci wrote, pointing out that “sums like $25,000 for the National Coalition for Health Care and $40,000 for the Consortium for Educational Change were listed by the NEA in the ‘representational activities’ category.”

The question of where NEA dollars go becomes even more difficult to answer when it pertains to the union’s state affiliates and UniServs, the primary recipients of the national organization’s contributions, gifts, and grants.

Tangled Web

The law requires that union expenditures on political activities be publicly identified, both because unions have to pay taxes on that money and so members will know when their dues are being used for political purposes. According to past statements by NEA officials, that’s not an issue with contributions to state affiliates and UniServs, because the money they receive is used to help with functions such as collective bargaining and communicating with members–not working for or against political candidates. (NEA officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.)

Critics, however, note NEA officials in the past have acknowledged spending millions of dollars on political activities, and they suspect the money going to state organizations is being used for forbidden practices.

In an email to the author, Antonucci said most of the “contributions, gifts, and grants” money that goes to UniServs is used to pay their directors, who “negotiate contracts, process grievances, do research, etc.” He added, however, that “they are also the NEA’s front-line troops for political activities,” noting that recently, “dozens were pulled from other states and sent to California to help in the special election campaign,” which dealt with such issues as teacher tenure and unions’ political expenditures.

Murky Details

The problem in proving NEA misdeeds, said Mark R. Levin, president of the Landmark Legal Foundation, which filed its first IRS complaint against the NEA in 2000, is that while his organization has “been trying to track both the amount and nature of money going to state affiliates for years,” even with the new reporting rules the picture “is still murky.”

Levin did say, though, that things have gotten a little clearer with the new detailed reports unions have had to send to the Labor Department.

“There are good building blocks in place now to help us get to the bottom of this,” Levin said. Nonetheless, the cat-and-mouse game being played over NEA money isn’t likely to end any time soon.

Neal McCluskey ([email protected]) is a policy analyst at the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom.

For more information …

The January 3, 2006 Wall Street Journal editorial, “Teachers’ Pets,” is available online at

The National Education Association’s Web site is at

The Education Intelligence Agency’s Web site is at

A January 5 entry on the EIA blog, Intercepts, addresses teacher union spending, available online at

The Landmark Legal Foundation’s Web site is at