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Perspective: National teachers’ unions aren’t on your side

Today’s unions spend much of their money on promoting a progressive agenda and Democratic candidates

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American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten speaks during a rally Tuesday, June 6, 2017 in New York.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten speaks during a rally coordinated by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif., Tuesday, June 6, 2017 in New York.

Mary Altaffer, Associated Press

How did we as a country get to a place where the education of children has become one of the most controversial topics of the day?

The answer is simple: the influence of powerful and politicized teachers’ unions, which have become adversarial to families to the point where “parental rights” is now a hot-button issue, similar to critical race theory, social-emotional learning and other topics that rightly worry parents.

Unions are supposed to fight for their members on issues like fair wages and benefits. But today’s unions have strayed far from their original purposes, particularly teachers’ unions like the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.

What do teachers’ unions fight for today? And where do teachers’ membership dues go?

Americans for Fair Treatment conducted analyses of teachers’ unions’ tax forms, known as LM2’s, as a part of their “Where Do Your Dues Go” series, and the answers are concerning.

Teachers’ unions fight for themselves, not teachers, parents or students. And membership dues often go to political campaigns and candidates, rather than bargaining for better teacher pay and benefits.

The American Federation of Teachers, led by longtime president Randi Weingarten, last year spent $49 million of membership dues on politics and an additional $6 million on contributions, gifts and grants to political organizations, which comprised 27% of the union’s spending.

Some examples of political organizations that received AFT funds are America Bridge 21st Century, a group created to attack Republican candidates during elections; the Sixteen Thirty Fund, which donates to groups that threaten to replace moderate Democrats with far-left candidates; and People for the American Way, which fights to end the Senate filibuster.

Overall, only 9% of AFT’s spending went to employee benefits, 14% went to general overhead, and 4% to union administration. The majority of AFT’s spending is political. 

Not only did the union spend millions on politics, but Weingarten’s official biography on AFT’s website proudly says she is “an active member of the Democratic National Committee.” She was recently quoted in The Washington Post in her capacity as an active member of the DNC’s rules and bylaws committee.

Meanwhile, the NEA spends millions of dollars on Democratic Party candidates instead of member benefits. Last year, the union spent a total of $374 million and only 9% went to assisting union members. Contrast that paltry sum to the 18% spent on political activities and 32% spent on contributions, gifts and grants, most of which were political in nature. Overall, NEA spent $2 on politics for every $1 spent representing its members.

Teachers’ unions also meddle in local school board elections. One example is the California Teachers Association, a teachers’ union in California which spent $2.8 million on electing school board candidates aligned with their goals of union control of public schools. On Election Day, California voters elected at least 20 of the union’s endorsed candidates to local school boards. 

A 2018 survey of school board members found that 24% of board members were connected to a union either through current or former membership to a teachers’ union. That is almost a quarter of school board members who have ties to teachers’ unions.

These union-backed school board members often do not have parents’ or children’s’ interests at heart. To a large degree, they were the reason for school closures, Zoom classes and forced mask mandates in classrooms. 

The politicized ambitions of teachers’ unions mean that they will continue to ramp up their efforts to hamstring or reverse gains made in school choice. And they’ve already started those efforts in states such as Arizona.

Arizona’s voucher program puts taxpayer dollars back in parents’ pockets in the form of scholarships, to help parents choose a school that best fits their child’s needs. Yet teachers’ unions and their supporters opposed this monumental policy reform and claimed it is an attack on public schools and public education. 

Newly elected Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs, a self-professed opponent of school choice, falsely claimed that the school choice movement ignores public schools entirely. “There are always going to be kids stuck in those schools,” Hobbs said. “Until we invest in those schools and make sure every student gets quality public education, we’re going to have the same issue. The voucher system does not fix that at all.”

Hobbs’ campaign received $10,000 from the Arizona Education Association’s Fund for Public Education political action committee in 2022, in addition to endorsements from AFT’s Arizona chapter and a multitude of other labor unions including UFCW, Teamsters 104 and UNITE HERE Local 11. Also, one of Hobbs’ most vocal backers, AEA President Joe Thomas, has deep union ties. He led the pro-union Red for Ed protests in 2018 and consistently posts partisan, pro-union rhetoric on Twitter.

Like teachers’ unions and anti-school choice activists, Hobbs specifically ignored the reality that school choice empowers students to leave failing public schools and attend a school that caters to the student’s individual needs.

Teachers’ unions have strayed far from their original purpose and no longer serve the best interests of parents and children. Unions like AFT and NEA must not prioritize politics over education, and they should stop trying to prevent parents from choosing quality education options for their children.

Spencer Irvine is senior writer and researcher at Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector employees offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights.