Think Tank Helps Teachers Avoid Unwanted Union Political Spending

Published February 1, 2005

In December 2004, the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Colorado (where the author serves as a research associate), sent emails to nearly 40,000 public school teachers across the state. The public service message told teacher union members how they could get a refund of their dues money that the union contributed to political candidates and campaigns.

Colorado’s public school teachers are not required to join a union, but most are members of the Colorado Education Association (CEA). Teachers who join the CEA do not automatically authorize the union to spend their money on politics. Nevertheless, the CEA takes $24 per year from each member’s payroll deduction and puts the funds into a registered committee that contributes to political parties, candidates, and ballot initiatives. Some of its local associations deduct an additional $12 or $24 per member for that purpose.

Union officials try to make the case that “no dues money is used to support political candidates.” That may be true, but the $2 a month deducted for political activities does not appear as a separate line item on a teacher’s paycheck.

Spending, Refund Not Publicized

Ninety-four percent of the reported 2004 political contributions made by the CEA and its local associations went to Democrats. A little more than 5 percent went to Republicans, and the rest supported an unaffiliated State Board of Education candidate who ran against a Republican incumbent.

The CEA offers members a full refund of their political contributions, which gives the program the name Every Member Option (EMO). Members must request the refund from the CEA–and, where applicable, from their local association–before an annual December 15 deadline.

Upon researching and publicizing the EMO, the Independence Institute heard from many CEA members who had not realized a refund was available. Some did not know the union was spending their money on politics.

The CEA prints announcements about the political deduction and the available refund in two issues per year of its bimonthly Journal. Also, some of the membership authorization forms used by the CEA’s local associations mention the EMO. However, union officials have made no active, systematic effort to inform individual teachers about the political contribution process.

CEA officials sent a letter to union members in response to the institute’s email message. Not disputing any of the facts presented, they insisted the notice to teachers was unnecessary. All CEA members are well aware of the political contributions and the available refund, the letter said.

However, the institute received a significant number of responses from union members who were not so well informed. One teacher called the institute on the day she received the email, saying she had belonged to the CEA for more than 20 years before recently quitting because of political disagreements. She said she had never even heard of the EMO refund before receiving the institute’s message.

Local Union Members Also Uninformed

Other union members told the institute they did not know their local association had been financing politics through their paychecks. In addition, some members of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)-Colorado contacted the institute to say they had not been aware that the state’s second-largest organization for public educators was spending their money on partisan politics.

Similar to their CEA counterparts, all AFT-Colorado members are subjected to an automatic 25-cent monthly refundable deduction for their organization’s politics. Ninety-seven percent of AFT-Colorado’s political contributions in 2004 went to Democrats. None went to Republicans.

A bill that would have prohibited public employers from making payroll deductions for political purposes passed the Colorado House of Representatives in 2004 but died in the Senate.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is an education policy research associate with the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

A copy of the Independence Institute’s email to Colorado public school teachers is available online at

The Independence Institute’s January 31, 2004, Issue Paper 4-2004, “Should Colorado School Districts Stop Collecting Political Funds?” by Mark W. Salley and Pamela Benigno, is available online at A Backgrounder summary is available at