Donations from teachers unions spiked as Congress debated school reopening, virus relief

Funding from AFT, NEA went primarily to Democrats

The recent uptick in donations by teachers unions, almost entirely to Democrats, came as the debate over remote schooling became political fodder.  (Illustration by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
The recent uptick in donations by teachers unions, almost entirely to Democrats, came as the debate over remote schooling became political fodder. (Illustration by Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 28, 2021 at 10:30am

As debates raged earlier this year over reopening schools and including money for education in a massive coronavirus relief package, the nation’s largest teachers unions sharply increased their spending on political contributions, a comparison to the same period in 2019 shows. 

The money overwhelmingly went to Democrats, who had just taken control of the White House and the Senate while retaining House control.

The American Federation of Teachers political action committee gave $1.6 million to congressional candidates and committees, including $1 million to House Majority PAC, a super PAC that boosts Democratic candidates, a CQ Roll Call analysis of federal filings showed. The same group disclosed giving just $45,000 to federal committees in the first three months of 2019, the same point in the two-year election cycle. 

The National Education Association’s PAC increased its federal donations by 38 percent, shelling out $371,000 in this year’s first quarter compared with $269,000 in the same period of 2019.

The uptick in donations, almost entirely to Democrats, came as the debate over remote schooling became political fodder. Congressional Republicans have criticized Democrats for being too cozy with teachers unions, a longstanding political ally, and thwarting school reopenings. Democrats say they, too, have worked to get students back into classrooms and pushed for extra federal funding in COVID-19 relief legislation, much of it to be spent in the coming years, for public education. 

Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.7-million-member AFT, said in a statement that the 2022 elections “will be a vitally important cycle, and that’s why the AFT moved earlier than usual, mindful of the challenges posed by the pandemic, to ensure our long-term allies could establish a footprint.”

“We will continue our staunch support for candidates who help Americans thrive: by creating opportunity and equity through public education (from pre-K through college), voting rights and labor rights — the three great opportunity agents working people have to get ahead,” she added.

A spokesperson for the NEA did not provide a comment.   

The donations of both groups have long favored Democrats, though their contributions in the first quarter of this year skewed even more so toward the party in power. The NEA donated to the GOP House and Senate campaign arms in early 2019, but did not do so early this year, according to Federal Election Commission records. It also hadn’t donated to the Democratic campaign arms this year, either, giving the vast majority to Democratic congressional candidates and their affiliated leadership PACs. 

The AFT’s biggest donations, other than its top-spending contribution to House Majority PAC, went to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Each received $105,000 from AFT in the first quarter, disclosures show. 

Parents vs. unions

Parent advocacy efforts have popped up in school districts across the country, including in the Washington, D.C., region, oftentimes in opposition to the position of teachers unions. The unions, for example, lobbied the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this year to keep in place guidance that schools maintain six feet of distance between students, while the open-schools parent groups lobbied for three feet to allow more students to return to classrooms. The CDC revised its guidance to three feet last month. 

Also in the first quarter, Congress voted along party lines to include nearly $130 billion for schools as part of a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package. No Republicans voted for that measure. 

Republicans have said they would prioritize the issue of pandemic school closures in their 2022 campaigns. Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee, said it would be “one of the defining issues” of the midterm elections.

“House Democrats’ undying loyalty to teachers’ unions has hurt America’s kids and Democrats will answer for it in 2022,” NRCC spokeswoman Torunn Sinclair said in an email Tuesday. 

The issue may feature prominently in some suburban districts, including in Virginia and New Jersey where Republicans are looking to pick up seats. It remains to be seen, however, how relevant the topic will be when voters head to the polls in 18 months. GOP operatives focused on Senate races say it’s likely to be an issue for them, too.  

“Teachers unions have bought the silence and complicity of Democratic senators, who should be standing up to reopen schools,” said Jack Pandol, a spokesman for the Senate Leadership Fund, a GOP super PAC.

But Democrats say they, and the unions, are on the winning side of the debate. 

“Democrats in Congress provided $130 billion in the American Rescue Plan to safely reopen our nation’s schools and support state-level education agencies. Every single Republican voted against this critical funding that is helping school leaders return to educating young people,” DCCC spokesperson Chris Taylor said. “Just like teachers, Democrats in Congress are focused on delivering for American families. Our teachers and families won’t forget next November that House Democrats had their backs and Republicans in Congress abandoned them in the middle of a pandemic.”

Before passing the $1.9 trillion package in early March, Democrats in the Senate voted against an amendment offered by Texas Republican Ted Cruz that would have required elementary and secondary schools seeking funding to submit plans to resume full-time, five-day in-person instruction for the remainder of the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years. 

The Senate did approve an amendment by New Hampshire Democrat Maggie Hassan to require school districts to make public “a plan for the safe return to in-person instruction.” It was supported by every Democrat and opposed by every Republican except Maine’s Susan Collins.

Advocacy agenda 

Rory Cooper, a former congressional GOP aide who is active in the push to reopen local public school districts, said the uptick in political donations amounted to the unions rewarding Democratic lawmakers “for paying the ransom money,” his term for the billions to education in the COVID-19 relief measure this year. 

The donations, he added, “should be toxic, frankly, at this point because the stances the unions are taking are just so deeply unpopular. It reinforces that teachers unions are political organizations designed to accrue political power.”

Some of the recipients of the teachers’ union donations in the first quarter of this year are lawmakers likely to face competitive reelection fights. Of the 47 Democrats on the initial target list released by the NRCC, 33 received contributions of $5,000 each from the AFT, and 37 received contributions of $2,000 each from the NEA.  Senators up next year in battleground states, including Raphael Warnock of Georgia and Mark Kelly of Arizona, each got $2,000 from the NEA as well. Kelly also received $5,000 from the AFT.

Both the AFT and the NEA have broad federal policy and legislative agendas, according to recently filed lobbying disclosure reports. 

The AFT disclosed lobbying on COVID-19 relief and vaccine priority for educators, as well as voting rights legislation and a sweeping overhaul of campaign finance, elections and lobbying laws known as HR 1 and S 1. 

The NEA, too, disclosed lobbying on the campaign finance and elections overhaul, as well as a measure that would overhaul policing after the killing of George Floyd last year. 

Both unions disclosed lobbying on “Removing a certain Member from certain standing committees of the House of Representatives,” as the AFT report put it. Democrats in the House voted in early February to remove freshman Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia from the chamber’s Budget and its Education and Labor committees, in response to her promotion of racist and conspiracy theorist views.  

Unlike with their campaign donations, neither union reported an increase in their lobbying budgets for the first quarter of this year. AFT reported spending $340,000 on federal lobbying, less than it spent in the first quarter of last year or the fourth quarter of last year. 

Ditto for the NEA, which reported spending $590,000 on federal lobbying in the first three months of this year, down from $700,000 in the first quarter of last year and $580,000 in the fourth quarter of 2020.

Herb Jackson contributed to this report.