When people think of lobbyists, they probably picture men clad in $2,000 suits, glad-handing politicians on behalf of well-heeled business clients. But one of the most powerful lobbyists in the capitol doesn’t represent private industry. The state’s second-largest lobbyist in terms of dollars spent is none other than the California Teachers Association. In the course of a decade, the CTA has spent more than $50 million alone lobbying politicians for legislation aimed at protecting and expanding its interests, usually at students’ and taxpayers’ expense. Few teachers realize, however, that they don’t have to finance the CTA’s political agenda. California may not be a right-to-work state, but most public school teachers have the right to a yearly rebate of $350 to $400 from their union—money that would otherwise line CTA lobbyists’ and political consultants’ pockets.
The ignominious history of the nearly 300,000 strong CTA is well-documented. The powerful union, with its enormous war chest, has managed to stifle any education-reform measure that it thinks will put a dent in its coffers. It has fought against vouchers, charter-school proliferation, and merit pay. At the same time, it fights to keep tenure, seniority, and endless dismissal statutes for incompetent teachers and pedophiles. The CTA’s spending fuels a broader liberal political agenda as well. In addition to spending millions lobbying legislators, the union was the largest donor to the successful Proposition 30 campaign last year, spending $11.4 million on the measure, which raised state income and sales taxes. And the CTA was active in the campaigns against initiatives in 2008 and 2010 preserving the traditional definition of marriage, requiring parental consent for abortions, and suspending the state’s global-warming law until economic conditions improve. In all, the teachers’ union has spent more than $290 million in total on candidates and causes since 2000, making it the biggest political spender in California by far.
Of course, the union would be nothing without the largely coerced “generosity” of its membership. At a recent education-reform panel, CTA president Dean Vogel claimed that the union’s membership is roughly 65 percent Democrat. Assuming that’s correct—nationally, somewhat more teachers identify as conservative (50 percent) than liberal (43 percent)—where does that leave the union members who aren’t liberals or Democrats? None of the union’s lavish political gifts goes to conservative candidates or causes. The CTA’s 800-member state council decides the union’s political agenda, Vogel explained, omitting the fact that the body’s politics run considerably further to the left of the average teacher. Since Vogel insists that the union represents all its members, why not respect its right-leaning educators by using their dues to support conservative efforts?
When an audience member asked Vogel what portion of a teacher’s dues is spent on political activity, he replied that $36 goes to the union’s initiative fund and $8 goes into a political-action committee for candidates. The CTA’s own auditor, however, reports that the union collected $647 from its members in 2012-2013, of which 34.6 percent went to areas— especially politics—unrelated to collective bargaining and other representational functions. (When you add state and local union dues, California teachers pay over $1,000 a year on average.) If you take $44 and multiply it by 300,000 teachers, you get $13.2 million. The CTA’s annual political spending has exceeded $21 million on average since 2000. So Vogel’s dollar figure is well short of the mark.
Republican or conservative teachers are paying the union to support candidates and causes they oppose. For apolitical teachers, the question is why they should pay to support any causes or candidates at all? But teachers can forgo paying the political portion. It bears repeating that several U.S. Supreme Court rulings deny unions the right to force members to subsidize their political agenda. Teachers never hear this message when they join the CTA. They often aren’t aware that “agency-fee payers” (nonunion members) can request a rebate, even though they’re still forced to pay for “chargeable expenses” that are “germane to the union’s representational functions.”
To make teachers aware of their union membership options, the California Teachers Empowerment Network and the California Public Policy Center have launched the California Teacher Freedom Project. Its aim: to inform California teachers that they don’t have to pay for their union’s costly hyper-partisan agenda. The project’s website provides step-by-step information on how teachers can become agency-fee payers, get the yearly rebate, and join nonunion, nonpartisan, professional alternatives. It’s time for all teachers who object to what amounts to taxation without representation to exercise their right to dissent and withhold the political part of union dues. Only then will the union elite stop using teachers as an ATM machine and be more responsive to the rank-and-file. The cutoff date to apply for a rebate this year is November 15.