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Teachers Unions Still Powerful Election Force

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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.

Electioneering activities are already underway across the country. The Florida Education Association is poised to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars and mobilize their tens of thousands of members in order to defeat an amendment to that state’s constitution that would alter class size requirements. New Jersey’s Chris Christie has had to deal with a constant barrage of threats from his state’s teachers unions. When he suggested a pay freeze and for teachers to pay a portion of their health care benefits, he was attacked as having launched a massive assault on public schooling. Oregon’s teachers union has marked $200,000 to spend on independent expenditures that will go toward defending its allies at the state house and donated $50,000 to Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Kitzhaber.

In Colorado we can see echoes of Washington’s mayoral primary. Colorado legislators pushed through massive education reforms earlier this year, bucking the will of the union in order to enact teacher-effectiveness evaluations and weaken tenure. How have the teachers unions responded? By spending heavily on political activities – they have given almost $1 million so far this year, including $10,600 to Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper and $110,000 to 48 more Democratic legislative candidates.

Despite the fact that public approval of teachers unions is on the decline and voters are generally supportive of education reform, legislators are faced with a tough choice: Do what’s right for kids and their education, or risk incurring the wrath of the teachers unions and endanger their electoral prospects.

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