Between the success of President Obama’s education reform initiative Race to the Top and the adulation being poured on the pro-education reform documentary Waiting for “Superman” – including appearances on "Oprah" and "Good Morning America," as well as fawning articles in magazines and newspapers across the country – one would be forgiven for thinking that teachers unions have lost their political clout.
Anyone harboring such suspicions is in for a rude awakening.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) reminded us just how much power teachers unions still have by pouring more than a million dollars into the Washington, D.C., mayoral campaign. Spent on organizing efforts and advertising campaigns, this money was crucial in turning the race around for a candidate who is far friendlier to the teachers unions, far more antagonistic to school chancellor and darling of the reform set Michelle Rhee, and far less likely to pursue reforms than his predecessor.
Quashing this Rhee-volution is just the first item on the agenda for the teachers unions.
You can expect to see more of the same in Chicago’s mayoral primary in 2011, where Karen Lewis, the head of the Chicago Teachers Union, has said that she was ready “to throw the weight of 30,000 members and their families and students and teachers [into the Democratic primary]. I mean, we’re looking at 800,000 people we could affect on some level.” Lewis has worked hard to stymie the reforms implemented by outgoing Mayor Daley; she’s gearing up for a fight to elect someone more amenable to protecting poor teachers at the expense of their students.
These efforts are designed to dissuade anyone else who might be interested in carrying out school reform: Cross the union by working toward basic reforms like weakening tenure to get incompetent teachers out of the classroom and they will enter the fray with both barrels blazing.
The AFT and the National Education Association have combined for $19.7 million in political expenditures in the last three midterm elections. That’s a yearly average of more than $6.5 million. At the state level, they wield even more clout: Over the last decade in the Golden State alone, the California Teachers Association has spent “more than $200 million on ballot initiatives, candidates for state and local office, and lobbying,” according to the Reason Foundation.
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