Teacher Unions Promote a Political Agenda

Published July 1, 2003

Teacher unions are advancing political agendas from Washington, DC down to the local precinct and schoolhouse levels.

In California, teacher unions are close to winning passage of a bill that would allow them and other school employee unions to use public schools for political propagandizing directed at teachers and other school personnel.

In Illinois, a bill approved 58-0 by the state senate earlier this year would have made K-12 teachers eligible for tenure–lifetime job security–after just two years of teaching instead of the current four years. Despite the unanimous senate vote, the bill remained bottled up in a House committee at session’s end on May 31.

The National Education Association (NEA)–the 2.7 million member kingpin for much of the local teacher union activism–is spending as much as one-third of its $271 million annual income on politically related activities, according to an analysis of NEA documents filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

The analysis was conducted by the Landmark Legal Foundation, a Virginia-based public interest group. Landmark has filed complaints seeking IRS collection of taxes for NEA political activities, since such activities do not qualify as tax-exempt.

The filings show the NEA spends almost $50 million a year to fund a national advocacy staff called UniServ, the 1,800 directors of which help screen political candidates and then campaign for their election. State and local NEA affiliates spend an additional $43 million on the UniServ network.

Mark Levin, Landmark president, contends the UniServ operatives are basically “precinct workers,” and the NEA should have to pay income taxes on their activities. NEA officials counter such UniServ activities as helping NEA affiliates encourage their members to vote for “pro-public education candidates” do not have to be reported to the IRS under current law.

Repealing a Prohibition in California

In California, Assembly Bill 503 would allow teacher and other school employee unions to use public schools directly for political campaigning aimed at school personnel. Currently, the state’s education code outlaws the use of school funds, services, supplies, or equipment to urge votes for or against any ballot measure or candidate. Two years ago, a state regulatory board ruled that a policy prohibiting political use of the employee mail system fell “squarely within” that statutory prohibition.

The rationale for keeping public schools partisanship-free zones is easy to understand, notes Lance Izumi of the Pacific Research Institute.

“Teachers and other school employees should be free of political pressures at their taxpayer-funded workplace,” said Izumi. “Using school facilities and services to push political candidates or ballot measures violates schools’ political neutrality. School facilities and services are paid for by taxpayers of all political persuasions.”

Nevertheless, Assembly Bill 503, which as of early June was pending in the state senate after passage in the assembly, would repeal all existing legal and regulatory obstacles to union propagandizing in the schools. Legislative Counsel has noted it would allow the school employee unions to use school “bulletin boards, mailboxes, and other communication” to urge victory or defeat for any candidate or ballot measure. The sole caveat is that the unions’ political postings must not be in areas available for viewing by the general public.

California’s senate gave final passage to such a bill last year, but Democratic Governor Gray Davis vetoed it. Davis reportedly did so only because the bill lacked a provision to keep postings out of general view. Because the new bill addresses that concern, “there’s a good chance the Governor could sign it,” Izumi noted.

Fast-Track Tenure Sought in Illinois

In Illinois, the NEA affiliate provides $3.1 million in cash and other assistance to campaigns for the state legislature; the American Federation of Teachers affiliate chips in another $1.9 million. Both unions lobbied legislators hard in this year’s legislative session to lower the tenure waiting period to two years, despite experts’ warnings that K-12 tenure laws protect only bad teachers.

The fast-track tenure bill, SB 317, died in the House Executive Committee.

Robert Holland is a senior fellow at the Lexington Institute, a public policy think tank in Arlington, Virginia. His email address is [email protected].