Teacher Unions Fail to Spread the Blues in 2004 Election

Published January 1, 2005

Rhetorically, the teacher unions framed the 2004 election as the “most important election of our lifetime.” They swore they wouldn’t allow the 2000 Florida debacle to happen again. Whatever you say about the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), you can’t accuse them of being half-hearted. They put aside their qualms about the Democratic presidential candidate, Senator John Kerry (D-MA), and gave their ultimate effort.

And they lost. Decisively.

By tying their fortunes to a single political party, NEA and AFT share that party’s fate. The unions reaped the political benefits of the Clinton years, and now they will pay the political price of the Bush years. NEA and AFT will have to face internally what the Democratic Party is facing electorally. The teacher unions themselves will be divided into red and blue states.

Look at the list of red states: Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Louisiana, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Wyoming, etc. What kind of growth prospects do NEA and AFT have in states where the unions spent mounds of members’ money on a candidate those states rejected by double digits? What’s worse, President George W. Bush carved out narrow wins in the strong union states of Nevada and Ohio and made headway in places like Michigan, Minnesota, and Pennsylvania.

Places of NEA strength and Kerry strength are one and the same: California, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, et al. As for AFT, look at the big-city vote for Kerry in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, and San Francisco.

The 2004 election was the Battle of the Bulge for the teacher unions. They threw the sum total of their resources into a quixotic attempt to regain national relevance. Now that the battle is lost, the unions have nothing left in reserve. They will spend the next four years and beyond fighting to defend a dwindling number of blue areas. As they lose members in red states, they will demand more and more resources from members in blue states–look at the industrial unions for the road map ahead. NEA and AFT will have to extract more and more political money from a smaller and smaller base.

Unlike the Democratic Party itself, there is no prospect of NEA and AFT “moving to the center,” nor should we wish to see teacher union money flowing in large quantities to Republicans. Since there is no hope of NEA and AFT altering their ideology, the only agreeable outcome for all parties is for an improvement in their “competence.”

Union leaders in red states may come to question the relevance of the national unions’ ideology in their states. They may create their own “triangulation” strategies á la Bill Clinton. Some may simply desert, á la Zell Miller. In either event, we may finally come to see something in NEA and AFT that simply does not exist right now–organized internal opposition.

The old way of doing things is so entrenched that only a major crisis will bring about such a change. But whether they know it or not, the 2004 election was just such a crisis for NEA and AFT.

Charters Crushed in Washington State

On the bright side for the teacher unions, the charter school initiative in Washington state was crushed 58 to 42 percent, helped along by NEA money. The NEA contributed $500,000 to the committee opposing Referendum 55, which would have established charter schools in Washington State. The NEA contribution made up more than half of the committee’s $856,000 war chest.

The Washington Education Association (WEA) chipped in another $200,000 and the AFT gave $55,000. Other cash and in-kind contributions came from WEA local affiliates, members, and staff. Indeed, it is difficult to find any contributors to the referendum campaign not linked to organized labor or school administrators.

Referendum 55 supporters raised $3.8 million, the bulk of it from Bill Gates, John Walton, and Donald Fisher, cofounder of The Gap stores.

Mike Antonucci ([email protected]) is director of the Education Intelligence Agency, which conducts public education research, analysis, and investigations. This material first appeared in his weekly Communiqué on teacher union activities, available at http://www.eiaonline.com.