Earlier this year, as debates raged over reopening schools and including education funding in a massive coronavirus relief package, the nation’s largest teachers’ unions sharply increased their spending on political contributions, according to a comparison to the same period in 2019.
The American Federation of Teachers political action committee gave $1.6 million to congressional candidates and committees, including $1 million to House Majority PAC, a super PAC that boosts Democratic candidates, a CQ Roll Call analysis of federal filings showed. The same group disclosed giving just $45,000 to federal committees in the first three months of 2019, the same point in the two-year election cycle.
The increase in donations, almost entirely to Democrats, coincided with the debate over remote schooling becoming political fodder. Republicans in Congress have chastised Democrats for being too cozy with teachers’ unions, a long-standing political ally, and for obstructing school reopening. Democrats say they, too, have worked to get students back into classrooms and pushed for extra federal funding in COVID-19 relief legislation, much of it to be spent in the coming years, for public education.
The AFT’s president, Randi Weingarten, stated in a statement that the 2022 elections “will be a vitally important cycle, and that’s why the AFT moved earlier than usual, mindful of the challenges posed by the pandemic, to ensure our long-term allies could establish a footprint.”
The donations of both groups have long favored Democrats, though their contributions in the first quarter of this year, skewed even more so toward the party in power. The NEA donated to the GOP House and Senate campaign arms in early 2019, but did not do so early this year, according to Federal Election Commission records. It also hadn’t donated to the Democratic campaign arms this year, either, giving the vast majority to Democratic congressional candidates and their affiliated leadership PACs.
Parent advocacy groups have sprung up in school districts across the country, including in the Washington, D.C., area, frequently in opposition to the position of teachers’ unions. The unions, for example, lobbied the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year to keep in place guidance that schools maintain six feet of distance between students, while the open-schools parent groups lobbied for three feet to allow more students to return to classrooms. The CDC revised its guidance to three feet last month.
In addition, Congress voted along party lines in the first quarter to include nearly $130 billion for schools as part of a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. There were no Republicans who voted in favor of the bill.
The issue may play a prominent role in some suburban congressional districts, including those in Virginia and New Jersey, where Republicans are hoping to gain seats. It remains to be seen, however, how relevant the topic will be when voters head to the polls in 18 months. GOP operatives focused on Senate races say it’s likely to be an issue for them, too.
“Teachers unions have bought the silence and complicity of Democratic Senators who should be standing up to reopen schools,” said Jack Pandol, communications director for the Senate Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC.
Rory Cooper, a former congressional GOP aide who, like other political parents on both sides of the aisle, is active in the push to reopen local public-school districts, said the increase in political donations amounted to unions rewarding Democratic lawmakers for “paying the ransom money,” his term for the billions of dollars allocated to education in this year’s COVID relief bill.
The donations, he added, “should be toxic, frankly, at this point because the stances the unions are taking are just so deeply unpopular. It reinforces that teachers’ unions are political organizations designed to accrue political power.”
According to recently filed lobbying disclosure reports, both the AFT and the NEA have broad federal policy and legislative agendas. The AFT disclosed lobbying on COVID-19 relief and vaccine priority for educators, as well as voting rights legislation and HR 1 and S 1, a comprehensive overhaul of campaign finance, elections, and lobbying laws. The NEA, too, disclosed lobbying on the campaign finance and elections overhauls as well as a measure that would overhaul policing after the killing of George Floyd last year.