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The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union, opposes the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the first version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act that the powerful union has not backed. The NEA has launched a high-profile legal and political battle against NCLB. It has also carried out another, less visible campaign against the law, pouring money into organizations that echo the union's criticisms of NCLB but often leaving the public unaware of the organizations' financial ties to the union.
*Due to an editing error the original graphic accompanying this report included Americans for Democratic Action as a recipient of NEA money. This is incorrect. We regret the error.
The 2.8 million-member National Education Association (NEA) is the nation's largest teachers union and arguably the most powerful organization in American public education. In 2005, it joined eight school districts in
The NEA opposes these NCLB accountability provisions, including standardized testing, consequences for teachers and other educators, and a range of remedies for students, including the transfer provision, reconstitution of school faculties, the transformation of failing schools into charter schools, and the handing over of failing schools to for-profit school-management companies. In its lawsuit, dismissed in November 2005 by the U.S. District Court for
Less conspicuously, the NEA has given millions of dollars to numerous organizations that have echoed NEA's criticisms of NCLB. The union has supported independent partners that have waged publicity campaigns against NCLB, have encouraged their memberships to oppose NCLB, or have produced studies and articles critical of the law. Says a prominent professor at
Many organizations fund other groups that are sympathetic to their policy agendas. There is nothing illegal in doing so, and there is nothing illegal in accepting such contributions. The federal Labor Management Reporting and Disclosure Act (LMRDA) requires labor unions to itemize all expenses of $5,000 or more, and the NEA complies with the letter and spirit of the LMRDA. This report does not include any evidence to the contrary. The Internal Revenue Service requires recipient organizations to report detailed information to the federal agency on the sources of their funding, but it does not require such organizations to make the names of their donors public in their tax filings.
The involvement in the political process of the NEA and the organizations that it funds is an ordinary and important part of democratic discourse. American government is built in part on the notion that an engaged citizenry helps supply checks and balances on the actions of elected officials. And organizations that do not receive NEA funding have criticized NCLB. In the words of Joel Packer, the NEA's manager of NCLB policy, the NEA supports outside organizations "directly or indirectly, jointly or independently," if they share a common agenda with the NEA. "Our members expect NEA to work towards changing NCLB."
But the NEA does not disclose many of the financial relationships with organizations that share its opposition to NCLB in ways that make the relationships clear to policymakers, the public, or even the press. Nor have many of the recipients of the NEA's largesse publicized their financial ties to the union. As a result, many observers don't know the relationships exist. A parent reading a newspaper story or glancing at a billboard on the way home from work can't be expected to track down minutiae in legal documents kept on file in a government office to learn that organizations and their research and rhetoric are sponsored by NCLB's most powerful critic and are not the independent, third-party voices that they are often portrayed as being in the media and by the NEA. "We have all kinds of organizations that want this law changed," NEA President Reginald Weaver declared during the union's annual Representative Assembly in
It is no less important for policymakers and the public to know that the NEA is funding many of the organizations that it claims are demanding changes in NCLB than it is for the public and policymakers to know that the National Rifle Association is bankrolling pro-gun groups—in both instances, transparency helps ensure the integrity of the policymaking process.
The NEA was encouraged to establish surrogates in education policy debates well before the enactment of NCLB. The Kamber Group, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting and public-relations company, urged the union in a 1997 report to go into "crisis mode" to protect public education from policy initiatives over which the union had no control, in part by getting other outside groups to help fight the union's battles. "In some cases, having third parties where purported self-interest is not an issue will greatly strengthen the credibility of the pro-public education position, and prevent the Association from harming its image by being out front alone on an issue of controversy and importance," Kamber argued. "In all cases, the Association is helped simply by increasing and mobilizing its allies—all of whom have a vital stake in the future of public education. In every case, this is an approach the NEA should pursue with vigor."
The NEA embraced the strategy, and it may be making a difference for the union. A 2003 poll by Education Week and the Public Education Network found that 40 percent of the public favored NCLB, while only 8 percent opposed it. Most of the country (49 percent), it seemed, did not know enough about NCLB to say one way or the other. The NEA, with considerable help from an advocacy group called Communities for Quality Education (CQE) and other outfits, set out to change those numbers. CQE funded television ads, organized rallies, and conducted studies on the potential impact of NCLB provisions on specific states and communities. A year later, the same poll showed that opinion had shifted dramatically, with favorable impressions dropping to 36 percent and opposition growing to 28 percent.
Organized teachers, of course, are not alone in their determination to influence public opinion on NCLB through media outlets and think tanks. The U.S. Department of Education came under fire in 2005 after USA Today reported on the existence of a contract between the department and Armstrong Williams, a columnist and television commentator. The contract paid him $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally syndicated TV show. And teachers unions themselves have reported funding links between conservative foundations and organizations promoting private-school vouchers.
The Wisconsin Education Association Council, for example, in 1998 published Anatomy of a Movement: Wisconsin Vouchers and the Bradley Foundation. The press should ask the same questions about funding sources but often doesn't, or doesn't mention such relationships in its news coverage.
This Education Sector report examines the financial relationships between the NEA and a number of organizations that have been sharply critical of NCLB.