With Reform on the Line, National Education Association Spends Big

The nation's largest union, period, is circling the wagons with election spending as education reform could happen under a Republican House

The National Association Education hasn't gotten much press as a big-time player in this year's midterm elections, but that's what it is.

The nation's largest union will have spent $40 million on the 2010 elections by Tuesday, including $17 million worth of TV, mail, radio and phone calls spread across four Senate races and seven House races, the NEA said today.

That's almost as much as the $44 million the Service Employees has budgeted for midterm elections and not that far behind the $53 million the AFL-CIO's deputy political director said the federation had originally budgeted (it's apparently prepared to spend more).

With education reform likely coming up on the White House's legislative agenda in the next two years--and with the shape of that reform yet to be determined--Tuesday could be critical for teachers' unions nationwide.

The races where NEA is spending are:

  • Washington Senate race: Sen. Patty Murray vs. Dino Rossi
  • Colorado Senate race: Sen. Michael Bennet vs. Ken Buck
  • Pennsylvania Senate race: Joe Sestak vs. Pat Toomey
  • Kentucky Senate race: Jack Conway vs. Rand Paul
  • Ohio District 13: Rep. Betty Sutton vs. Tom Ganley
  • Virginia District 5: Rep. Rom Perriello vs. Robert Hurt
  • Colorado District 3: Rep. John Salazar vs. Scot Tipton
  • Florida District 22: Rep. Ron Klein vs. Allen West
  • Illinois District 17: Rep. Phil Hare vs. Bobby Schilling
  • New York District 1: Rep. Tim Bishop vs. Randy Altschuler
  • North Carolina District 8: Rep. Larry Kissell vs. Harold Johnson

You'll notice that all those candidates are Democrats, and that they're all incumbents (except for Rep. Joe Sestak, who is running for a seat currently held by Democratic Sen. Arlen Specter, whom he defeated in the primary). The strategy, in this rough election year for Democrats, has been to identify the members that matter most and try to protect them.

Roughly a third of the budget is going to fight or support a handful of ballot initiatives across the country, including a legislative districting law in Florida and tax initiatives in Massachusetts and Washington that, the union says, would deprive public schools of funding.

"Our goal here really, because we can't play in 435 congressional races, is to choose the people we know who are going to be education champions who are in tough races," NEA Political Director Karen White told me today.

As unions typically do, the NEA has dedicated a significant chunk of its energy--and about a third of its political budget--toward urging its members to vote for Democrats on Tuesday. Unions can contact their own members (and members of those members' households) much more easily, and with far fewer legal restrictions, than they can the general public, so the NEA has been encouraging its unionized teachers not only to vote, but to volunteer with campaigns or through the phone banks and canvasses being run nationwide by the AFL-CIO.

Claiming 3.2 million members nationwide, it's the largest individual union in the nation. It's been alternately sending mailers to and calling union homes, contacting a total of 5 million voters in the broader NEA family.

It's been active in that regard in some 80 House races, adding another 25 to its get-out-the-vote program last week.

In keeping with labor's more sophisticated get-out-the-vote methods in recent years, NEA uses Catalist, the voter targeting database used by unions during the 2008 election.

"One of our most valuable assets is our members," White said. "Educators are very well spoken, they're educated...they know how important these elections are."

With the House expected to flip to Republican control on Tuesday, it appears likely the President Obama will attempt to take up broad-based education reforms with a Republican House and a slim Democratic majority in the Senate. Education was one of Obama's three biggest policy initiatives when he entered office, as advertised by the White House when it outlined the president's first budget proposal--the other two being health care and energy--and observers have noted that, among all the big issues Obama has promised to take up as president, education reform offers the most room for compromise between the administration and Republicans.

Obama enjoys the support of teachers' unions, though it seems he may ask a lot of them if education reform gets underway in full--particularly if Republicans hold significant power in Congress. Obama has voiced support for unions, but he's also drawn criticism for supporting mass teacher firings at a Rhode Island school.

As Donald Rumsfeld said, you go to war with the army you have. NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, the other prominent national teachers' union, will likely go to war during the next Congress.

NEA, for its part, is trying to make sure that its army is as big and supportive as possible, even as Republicans victories next week could significantly impact federal education policy within the next two years.