Florida teachers union is still the big dog in campaign contributions

While the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission will no doubt continue to reshape the campaign finance landscape, a Wall Street Journal report today is a reminder that teacher unions remain very active players. Using information from both U.S. Labor Department and Federal Election Commission reports, the Journal identified $377 million in total political spending by the nation’s two top teacher organizations from 2005 to 2011. That’s roughly four times the amount previously reported just from FEC records.

Of note to those of us in Florida, the Journal also reported that the Florida Education Association spent $14.7 million over the same period, ranking it behind only teachers unions in California, New York and four other northern states.

The Florida number brings to mind a Florida Times-Union story published last year on the campaign influence of a separate education organization, the American Federation For Children. That story, which is still actively linked by various progressive blogs, made the legitimate point that AFC, a national organization that supports private school options, has been spending money for candidates who feel the same way. The reporter identified $313,757 in Florida campaign contributions since 2007, and singled out Democrats who, as it turns out, had received roughly three-fourths of that total.

What the story and the blog posts have missed is that the AFC money pales in comparison to what FEA spends to influence the process. This is not intended as a criticism of FEA or its investment in the political process, because its members indeed have a profound interest in education policy. But the story carried with it the implication that the Democrats who support private learning options for low-income students are selling out for campaign money. It said as much through how it reported the response of the Democrats: “They say their vote is about bringing choice to districts with poor public schools, not campaign cash.” Pointedly, it did not ask the same question of Democrats who oppose private learning options and receive FEA contributions. That question is more than little relevant, given that unions still forcefully oppose any voucher for any child for any reason.

A South Florida progressive blog recently branded any Democrat who votes to give poor children a private learning option a “sellout to the school voucher lobby.” Given the striking difference in the financial stakes between the voucher lobby and the FEA lobby, this accusation assumes such a Democrat not only lacks the moral conviction to help poor school children but the political acumen to sell out to the highest bidder.

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BY Jon East

Jon East is special projects director for Step Up For Students. Previously, he was a member of the editorial board and the Sunday commentary editor at the St. Petersburg Times, Florida’s largest daily newspaper, where he wrote about education issues for most of his 28 years at the paper. He was also a reporter and editor at the Evening Independent and Ocala Star-Banner. He earned a journalism degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.