Teacher Unions, Mac the Knife, and Dollar Power

By 01/13/2012

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That’s the headline above Paul Peterson’s better-than-nifty essay on the Ed Next blog.

Peterson, director of the Program on Education Policy and Governance at Harvard and Executive Editor of Education Next (of which I am a contributing editor), uses the Mac the Knife reference to suggest that loyalties can be bought “for a pittance.” In this case, it’s the National Education Association (NEA), which can, Peterson argues,

…collect multi-millions of dollars through a check-off system that generates revenues directly from teacher paychecks (unless a teacher specifically objects),” and, a la the villain of Mac the Knife, “invest in the work of less-advantaged non-profits that ostensibly have entirely different agendas. Even a little bit of money can produce a valuable ally somewhere down the line.

It’s a short essay, but is packed with evidence (from the Education Intelligence Agency) of NEA’s multi-tentacled reach, from a $250,000 grant to the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice (“which has migrated to the University of Colorado at Boulder, which received another quarter million in direct funding,” says Peterson) to $100,000 for Media Matters, “a group that attacks conservative groups and commentators” and $35,000 for “the anti-accountability group,” FairTest.

“The list goes on and on,” says Peterson, who suggests keeping it handy “if one wants to understand the interstices of the debate over school reform.”

What is also problematic about all this is that the list doesn’t even include the millions given directly to legislators and other policymakers. And therein is an existential problem that, despite the lull in the fighting in Wisconsin and Ohio, lurks in the background of most of the debates about unions: they use public money to influence public officials to write laws that give them even more money. As Fred Siegel of the Manhattan Institute told the New York Times last year (see my “Unions on the Run” post),

Public unions have had no natural adversary; they give politicians political support and get good contracts back…It’s uniquely dysfunctional.

Thus, as a public union, the NEA (so too the American Federation of Teachers), is, essentially, spreading around tax dollars, money over which the taxpayer has no control, an income redistribution effort that could easily be mistaken for a kickback or, in states where union membership and dues are not voluntary, a not-so-hidden and not-so-representative tax.

And it’s not just lobbying for higher pay that is the problem. As Terry Moe writes in his new book,Special Interest: Teachers Unions and America’s Public Schools,

On the surface, it might seem that the teachers unions would play a limited role in public education: fighting for better pay and working conditions for their members, but otherwise having little impact on the structure and performance of the public schools more generally. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. The teachers unions have more influence of the public schools than any other group in American society.

Indeed, the battle about whether teacher quality is important to education outcomes is an important one. And teachers need a voice in the debate. But it should not be a voice amplified with funds from the public purse and used to silence other voices.

– Peter Meyer

This post also appears on Board’s Eye View.

Comment on this article
  • David Orphal says:


    You are mistaken when you say that, “they use public money to influence public officials to write laws that give them even more money.”

    Unions do not use public money to influence politics. They use the dues money that their members give them. That is private money. When a teacher earns money, that money is no longer public, it is private. That money belongs to the teacher. When the teacher pays her or his union dues, that is still private money.

    Within teachers’ unions there is already a system to allow a teacher to refuse to allow her of his dues to be used for political campaigns or candidates. A teacher only has to fill out a form and at the end of the year, they receive a refund of those dollars that would have gone to political purposes.

    Your statement seems to make the argument that because a teacher’s salary is paid with tax dollars that those dollars remain the property of the public. This argument would then hold for Micro-soft, for all of the money they are paid for contracts that they perform for the government.

    Frankly, what’s wrong with teachers have influence over public education. Teachers are the ones who actually know the children.

    To armchair quarterback like yourself, these children are simply a score on an exam. To their teachers, they have names; they go home to violent or impoverished neighborhoods; they are curious about science, but don’t like math.

    Your real argument is that teachers and their unions don’t share your vision of reform for public education. That’s fair. Instead of trying to silence teacher voices in the debate through your spurious argument, engage the unions and argue why your reform ideas serve children better than theirs.

  • Anne Clark says:

    OMG – you are so right – they’re just like the defense contractors, the oil and gas industry, the health care industry,…

    (shall I go on?)

    They all employ legions of lobbyists and spread their money around to try and get us to spend our tax dollars.

    Thank you so much for your calls for campaign finance reform.

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