Many public school teachers and school districts are about to learn the truth of Pericles’ statement, “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.”
The findings of a just-released study by the Independence Institute sheds new light on the politics of one of the most powerful unions in the country – the teachers’ union. The Colorado Education Association and its local affiliates use formal political committees to do their heavy lifting. But just how do union political committees collect their funding?
The disappointing news is that public school districts in Colorado seem to be unknowingly feeding the coffers of the union’s political efforts.
And many teachers also are unaware.
Teachers in the state who choose to belong to a CEA local affiliate complete an authorization form directing the school district to withhold a portion of their salaries to pay union membership costs. These costs include money for the union’s local, state and national chapters, as well as money the CEA collects from members for its “Every Member Option (EMO) program.” This is the program the union uses to fund its political activities.
A contribution to a political committee should be just that – a contribution, not a standard charge for every member. But what is actually occurring in most school districts throughout the state is that every CEA member is having money withheld to support the union’s political committee. Yes, the union will quickly say, teachers can get a refund of their Every Member Option money. But many teachers don’t even know the money is being withheld – much less that a refund can be obtained.
The Institute’s research looked at the 20 largest school districts, 19 of which have teachers’ associations affiliated with the CEA and the National Education Association. Each of these districts performs payroll withholding for teachers’ union membership costs and then turns the money over to the union each month. With the CEA claiming 36,000 members, public school districts are collecting millions of dollars for the union each year.
Many of these districts didn’t seem to know money being withheld for the union includes Every Member Option money for partisan union politics. Records from the secretary of state show the CEA’s political committee (Colorado Funds for Children and Public Education) made more than $163,000 in political contributions in 2002 – with 92.5 percent of the money going to Democrats or Democratic committees ($151,010 to Democrats or Democratic committees; $12,230 to Republicans or Republican committees.)
The problem is not that the union overwhelmingly favors Democrats; the problem is that public school districts have no business letting their payroll systems be co-opted by the union for financial transactions with its members.
New technologies have made the districts’ service as a financial agent outmoded. In recent years, banks have made their services increasingly convenient through electronic banking. Teachers today who want to be members of the union can use electronic transfers to automatically pay their membership fees directly to the teachers’ union. Importantly, this gives teachers direct control over their relationship with their union and it gets school districts out of union business.
When the teachers’ union is forced to collect its costs directly from its members, then members could expect to pay only dues without having additional involuntary deductions for political costs.
Yes, Pericles, even if the school districts (and their teachers) don’t take an interest in politics, the teachers’ union sure has a political interest in them and their money. It is time the Colorado legislature put a stop to the use of publicly funded payroll systems for the benefit of union politics. School districts in Colorado should be prohibited from collecting any funds that can be used by the union for political activities. It’s time to let the teachers’ union collect its own funds.
Mark W. Salley is a former newspaper editor and communications professional living in Arvada. He is currently a researcher with the Independence Institute. This article originally appeared in the Rocky Mountain News.