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Teachers’ unions exploit members...

Teachers’ unions exploit members to push far left agenda

By: Russ Latino - June 10, 2024

Teachers' unions

NEA President Becky Pringle and AFT President Randi Weingarten

  • In this first in series examination of how core institutions are being undermined by deeply ideological movements, we look at how powerful teacher unions are exploiting teachers to promote far left candidates and causes, all while education achievement plummets nationally.

The two largest teachers’ unions in the U.S. spend well over 90 percent of their political contributions on Democratic candidates for office. They simultaneously push a laundry list of progressive causes unrelated to education.

Between the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT), all fifty states contain active affiliates. The educators they pry dues from finance a sophisticated, far left political apparatus often inconsistent with their own beliefs.

In 2017, Education Week surveyed teachers’ political leanings. 43 percent identified as moderate, 29 percent as liberal, and 27 percent as conservative. A Pew Study released in April of this year found 58 percent of public school teachers identified as Democrats and 35 percent identified as Republican — perhaps offering some insight into how self-identified “moderate” teachers break when it comes to partisan politics.

A fair reading of these data points in concert is that teachers are moderate to left leaning, but not extreme. Educators also are not a homogenous voting block, and political preference varies by state and region.

But even for teachers unaffiliated with unions, or who openly disagree with their activity, these organizations play a seismic role in shaping education orthodoxy across the country, and even more broadly, in shaping culture.

Teachers’ Unions Partisan Giving

The NEA boasts over 3 million members and revenue north of $370 million annually. AFT claims 1.7 million members and a budget over $205 million.

Looking at AFT’s and NEA’s political giving, a critic might conclude all teacher members sign a pledge to only support Democrats. The charts below reflect the unions’ federal contributions since 2014.

First, AFT‘s political generosity:

Election YearAmount ContributedPercent Donated
to Democrats
2024$7.330 million99.92%
2022$24.514 million99.97%
2020$20.396 million99.63%
2018$13.172 million99.80%
2016$16.525 million99.66%
2014$8.840 million99.03%
AFT’s federal contributions to candidates since 2014.

And for the more bipartisan giving of the NEA:

Election YearAmount ContributedPercent Donated
to Democrats
2024$7.023 million97.91%
2022$26.324 million99.23%
2020$14.731 million95.60%
2018$5.354 million93.19%
2016$10.985 million87.15%
2014$8.050 million91.77%
NEA’s federal contributions to candidates since 2014.

It could be argued that the near exclusive giving to Democratic candidates is a byproduct of a simple majority of teachers leaning Democrat — that if 51 percent of teachers identified as Republican, the unions might give 99.9 percent of their contributions to Republicans instead.

Perhaps. But the fact is that a sizable portion of teachers are paying dues to support candidates with whom they do not agree. The giving simply is not reflective of the broader membership’s diverse political views.

Both AFT and NEA have endorsed President Biden for re-election. AFT’s website features a pop-up that asks visitors if they are “ready to stand with Biden?” In May, the NEA began push polling membership with a question that asked if Donald Trump is a “bully and a racist?” Interestingly, the survey also contained loaded questions about Biden’s role in the deaths of “tens of thousands of Palestinians.”

De-Emphasizing Education

One might also contend the AFT’s and NEA’s one-sided political giving is a byproduct of genuine belief that Democratic candidates are better for education. But that would assume the unions are doggedly focused on improving education.

Mississippi offers an interesting case study. The 2023 election featured a Republican candidate, Tate Reeves, who had signed into law multiple teacher pay raises, including the largest in state history. During his tenure in office, beginning as Lt. Governor, Mississippi experienced first-in-nation 4th Grade reading gains. Its graduation rate eclipsed the national average.

Reeves’ Democratic opponent, Brandon Presley, had never been in a policy making role with the opportunity to impact education. Still, it was Presley and not Reeves who drew the endorsement of the NEA, and its Mississippi affiliate, the Mississippi Association of Educators.

This endorsement decision is more easily understood if teachers’ unions are not thought of as education organizations, but as an extension of a major political party.

The Teachers’ Union Agenda

In reality, both AFT and NEA spend considerable time and resources supporting a progressive wish list of economic, social, and foreign policy completely untethered from education achievement. In recent years, AFT has taken up fights, including:

  • Calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and the creation of a two-state solution for the Israelis and Palestinians
  • Support for males playing female sports, and opposition to state efforts to prohibit transgender surgery for minors
  • Advocating for the banning of self-checkouts in restaurants, grocery stores and retailers
  • Denouncing Vladimir Putin for the transport of Ukrainian minors into Russia
  • Support for the appointment of Justice Kentaji Brown Jackson and opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court in religious liberty cases
  • Declaring a “climate emergency” and support for Green New Deal
AFT President Randi Weingarten representing American teachers in Ukraine, October of 2022, in protest of the Russian invasion.

Similarly, the NEA featured action items include a ceasefire in the Middle East, support for abortion access, and calls to confirm Biden’s judicial nominees. Additional NEA calls to action include:

  • Restrictions on gun owners’ rights
  • Advocacy for increased taxes on the wealthy and corporations
  • Efforts to normalize illegal immigration
  • Support for new federal election laws
  • Calls to strengthen the “social safety net” and expand welfare programs

However a person thinks about any of these issues, the two largest teachers’ unions in the country collecting money from teachers to advocate for deeply contentious political causes — unrelated to the provision of education — represents dramatic mission creep, at best, and exploitation, at worst.

Reading, Writing and Social Justice

Both AFT and NEA dedicate a substantial portion of their energy and resources to promoting ‘social justice’ in public schools, a once benign term that has come to represent a grab bag of Marxist thought centered around radical identity politics.

The NEA’s mission statement says its purpose is “championing justice and excellence in public education.” That “championing justice” comes before “excellence in public education” is telling.

In a now infamous 2023 speech at NEA’s annual conference, NEA President Becky Pringle took aim at their host state, Florida. Pringle called the Sunshine State “ground zero for shameful, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic rhetoric.” That’s a lot of -ics. She also lobbed bombs at the U.S. Supreme Court and extolled the virtues of LGBTQ rights, abortion, affirmative action, and social justice.

Not once in the 30-minute talk did she mention reading, writing, or arithmetic. If you have half an hour, and don’t mind being yelled at for half an hour, it’s worth a watch. (Towards the end she invokes the spirit of Chief Seattle).

L to R: AFT President Randi Weingarten, First Lady Jill Biden, and NEA President Becky Pringle, masked up and socially distancing.

AFT has also advocated for social justice curriculum in public schools. Among its resolutions are calls to create ‘anti-racism’ coursework. At a conference hosted by AFT last year, teachers received lessons that included:

  • “Affirming LGBTQIA+ Identities in and out of the Classroom,”
  • “Education for Liberation: The Role of the Racially Conscious Educator in Combating Oppression,” and
  • “Strategies for Integrating Climate Change into Your Teaching.”

People deserve respect and to be treated with dignity. History matters, warts and all. But teaching educators and students to wallow in an ‘oppressor-oppressed’ framework, or to fixate on identity, is a tool meant to indoctrinate the amenable and marginalize political opponents. It’s also a distraction from practical education.

A couple of years ago, former Secretary of State and CIA Director Mike Pompeo identified AFT President Randi Weingarten as “the most dangerous person in the world.” When probed, Pompeo made clear he was not joking. Weingarten has been at the center of numerous controversies, including accusations that she influenced the CDC to go against the science and stop schools from reopening during COVID.

Failing Our Kids (and Teachers)

Taxpayers continue to invest in public education. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 2022 saw the largest spike in education spending in 20 years. Between 1960 and 2020, per pupil spending on education rose by 280 percent, adjusted for inflation.

But even with record spending, as public schools are being encouraged to shift away from core subjects and toward a steady diet of navel-gazing and self-flagellation, student performance is suffering.

The National Assessment of Education Performance (NAEP) is referred to as the Nation’s Report Card. It is a federally administered set of tests considered to be the gold standard in assessing learning progress. In 2023, 8th Grade math and reading scores fell to the lowest levels in decades nationally.

At 256 on a scale of 500, students’ reading scores matched scores from 1971, when we spent considerably less on education. Only 13 percent of test takers were assessed as being able to understand complicated passages. At 271 out of 500, students’ math scores matched scores from 1990. Only 26 percent showed proficiency in “moderately complex procedures and reasoning.”

It turns out lil’ Johnny needs less ‘woke’ and more math.

But it’s not just students struggling. Every single survey of teacher satisfaction shows declining levels of happiness with the profession, levels much lower than those found on general work satisfaction surveys. That is to say the very people who pay teachers’ unions to represent them are not feeling the fruit of their investment.

The Close

People who like NEA’s and AFT’s politics will inevitably read this and claim it is an attack on teachers. Nothing could be further from the truth. I can name half a dozen public school teachers who had real impact on my life. I can name three members of my family that are public school teachers. And I can tell you both of my kids in Mississippi public schools love their teachers.

This is not criticism of teachers. In fact, it is a recognition of how important teachers are and the real danger of turning the act of educating a child into a divisive political act. There are plenty of members of both the NEA and AFT who feed the beast unwittingly. There are plenty of non-members that over time, absent meaningful push back, will be influenced by the agendas of these unions.

The teaching profession is uniquely collaborative. Divisive ideas introduced at the top have a way of trickling down. Our children, teachers, and schools should not be treated as political pawns or social experiments.

About the Author(s)
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Russ Latino

Russ is a proud Mississippian and the founder of Magnolia Tribune Institute. His research and writing have been published across the country in newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal, National Review, USA Today, The Hill, and The Washington Examiner, among other prominent publications. Russ has served as a national spokesman with outlets like Politico and Bloomberg. He has frequently been called on by both the media and decisionmakers to provide public policy analysis and testimony. In founding Magnolia Tribune Institute, he seeks to build on more than a decade of organizational leadership and communications experience to ensure Mississippians have access to news they can trust and opinion that makes them think deeply. Prior to beginning his non-profit career, Russ practiced business and constitutional law for a decade. Email Russ: