In a recent op-ed, California Federation of Teachers (CFT) President Joshua Pechthalt calls out special interests for pouring money into California elections in support of charter schools. He writes:
The charter association spent better than $24 million in relatively few races this year. Oakland, where previously $20,000 was a lot of money for a school board race, was awash in a half-million dollars in contributions, mostly from the charter association and another billionaire-funded committee.
Missing from Perchthalt’s piece is the fact that the CFT and other teacher’s unions are also big-spending special interests. Indeed, they spend considerably more on political donations than charter advocates.
Based on our review on campaign contribution and independent expenditure data reported by the Secretary of State, we find that teacher’s unions spent over $27 million on state-wide races during the current election cycle. The largest contributions are shown in the chart at the end of this article. Actual teacher union political spending is much higher because the Secretary of State’s data do not include contributions to school board candidates and other local campaigns. For example, according to data available from the Oakland City Clerk, the Oakland Education Association PAC made over $80,000 in donations and independent expenditures in the most recent election.
With respect to the state-level spending, most of it was devoted to supporting Propositions 55 and 58. Proposition 55 extends higher marginal tax rates on top income earners for another twelve years, funneling most of the added revenue to education. The union’s argument that this is good for students, but the correlation between spending and student achievement is dubious. According to 2014 Census data, Washington DC public schools received funding of $29,866 per pupil – by far the highest in the nation. Yet DC students performed worse than those in 46 of the 50 states, according to the most recent Education Week achievement scorecard. By contrast, Utah, which which spends only $7,714 per student ranked 14th on the scorecard. California spent $11,223 per student and ranked 30th. So while we know that more public education spending is good for teachers and other employees, the benefits for students are less clear,
Proposition 58 undermined a previous voter-approved restriction on bilingual education. According to the Legislative Analyst’s Office, the initiative would not have a significant fiscal impact, because it does not directly change local funding formulas. However, restarting bilingual education will require new curricula, re-training current teaching staff and hiring new eduators who are fluent in multiple languages. All of this will have to be funded somehow, and bilingual education could thus be used as a justification for future funding increases.
Aside from propositions, union spending also focused on certain key legislative races. Most notably, teacher’s unions spent over $800,000 to influence the outcome of the 14th District Assembly race between Democrats Mae Torlakson and Tim Grayson in Concord (Contra Costa County). Torlakson is the wife of the State’s Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, who has been characterized as being anti-charter and pro union. In this race, the unions were unsuccessful: Grayson came out on top.
While it is true that Grayson and other school choice oriented candidates received support from pro-charter groups and affluent individuals, the conversation should not stop there. The California Federation of Teachers, the California Teacher’s Association and other unions are also wealthy special interests, and, unlike many of those vilified billionaires, the unions campaign contributions are funded by our taxes.
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Marc Joffe is the director of policy research for the California Policy Center.