The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) are the nation’s largest teachers unions—influential institutions, not just in education but in politics as well. Interestingly, labor unions give more than 90 percent of their political contributions to Democratic candidates. The two teachers unions are no different. Although the NEA consistently refers to its bipartisanship and has membership data to prove it, both NEA and AFT political contributions lean heavily toward the Democratic Party; in fact of their 1999–2000 PAC contributions to federal candidates, 98 percent have gone to Democrats. Furthermore, in 1999 NEA and AFT soft-money contributions ranked sixth and seventh among the Democratic Party’s 5,000 donors.
Talking about political affiliations in a recent National Public Radio interview, Bob Chase, president of the NEA, stated that his members are “not majority Democratic. Our membership breaks down very similar to the general public as far as percentage being Democratic, Republican, and independent.” This is particularly relevant since at least 75 percent of public school teachers are members of the NEA or the AFT. From 1971 to 1996, teachers’ political affiliations have been relatively constant in their distribution among Democrats (about 40 percent), Republicans (about 30 percent), and “no affiliation/other” (the remaining 30 percent).
Teachers’ voting patterns are consistent with their voter registrations and show that they are in the American mainstream. The CBS/New York Times exit polls of the 1980 presidential elections revealed that 46 percent of teachers voted for Ronald Reagan, 41 percent for Jimmy Carter, and 10 percent for John Anderson. By comparison, 51 percent of nonteachers voted for Reagan, 40 percent for Carter, and 6 percent for Anderson—trivial differences between the two groups. The 1984 exit polls produced similar numbers. The political contributions, however, of both the NEA and the AFT are in sharp contrast to the voting records of their memberships.
It is instructive to note that when teachers are given a choice, they do not prefer to spend resources on politics, much less partisan politics. Between 1992 and 1997 in Washington state, where unions were required to obtain annual permission before collecting or using any portion of workers’ salaries for political purposes, the number of teachers contributing to the education union’s PAC declined by 82.2 percent. This could mean that when you see ads paid for by the teachers unions that are against vouchers and charter schools or endorse a Democratic candidate, they may not reflect the opinions of large numbers of teachers. Presumably, teachers want to teach, to help their students—that’s why they enter the profession. In the classroom, they’re not afraid to innovate, motivate, and adjust. If we believe voter registration data and voting patterns, the unions’ stand may not be the typical teacher’s stand.
So who speaks for the teachers? In political battles, it doesn’t appear to be the NEA or the AFT. It is disconcerting to see that “representative” institutions like the NEA and the AFT can miss the mark by such a wide margin.