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January 2013 Brief: Volume 20, Number 3

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Union Money: 100 percent Democrat. Really?


by Deborah D. Thornton



Governor Branstad’s 2012 education reform proposal faced stiff resistance from entrenched factions in the traditional Iowa education establishment, specifically the teachers and government-worker unions. As a powerful, well-funded force in local, state, and national politics – these unions are engaged in a continuous battle to resist educational reform and defend the status quo. And all their money goes to the Democrats.


Financed in Iowa by millions of dollars taken from teachers’ and other government workers’ paychecks, the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) and American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) unions’ political action committees (PACs) contribute heavily to local, state, and federal elected officials, whether partisan or non-partisan elections. Once elected with teacher and bureaucrat money, these officials decide how much money to pay the teachers and bureaucrats. This nice, tight circle leaves out the source of the money – the taxpayers.


Who does the PAC money go to? The elected officials the unions contribute to are nearly 100 percent Democrats. As a result the Democrats in the Iowa Legislature do not support education reform or school choice, but advocate strongly for higher taxes, increased teacher pay, smaller class sizes, new buildings, and correspondingly higher numbers of well-paid administrators – though the numbers of students educated in Iowa continues to fall and though student achievement remains stagnant. The individuals hired by the government money, and the appointed administrative officials then contribute to the unions from their paychecks. And round the money goes.


In response to parental dissatisfaction with failing government schools and demands for more options to address students’ unique learning needs, lawmakers in many states have ushered in an unprecedented era of school reform during the last two years. Across the elementary and secondary education landscape, there has been a proliferation of public charter schools, public online schools, open-enrollment policies, and school-choice-support efforts such as tuition scholarships and non-profit tuition organizations. In many states these reforms have for the first time truly empowered parents to make personal decisions about their children’s needs and where to send their children to school. Not so much in Iowa.


In one example, State Senator Tod Bowman, (D-Maquoketa), was first elected in 2010. Bowman is not only a teacher, but the President of the Maquoketa Area Education Association. He received $1,000 from the Iowa teachers union and almost $2,300 from AFSCME. General union contributions to his campaign exceeded $16,000, and Iowa Democrat Party contributions exceeded $60,000.[1] As a first-time candidate, Senator Bowman would not have won without this union-controlled money. As it was, he won by less than 75 votes. This was a key race in determining control of the Iowa Senate, which ended up 26 Democrat – 24 Republican in 2012.


Bowman serves on the Education and Local Government Committees.[2] In May 2012, he and every other Democrat in the State Senate voted “yes” on SF 2284, Education Law Amendments, which basically gutted Governor Branstad’s proposed educational reforms.


A large amount of the money received and spent by the Iowa Democrat Party in 2012 originated with the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA). During the 2012 election cycle the Iowa Democrat Party received over $600,000 from the ISEA.[3] If you go back to 2003, it totals over $1.5 million. Almost 100 percent of the ISEA political action committee donations going directly to candidates for State House and State Senate go to the Democrats who support their anti-school choice education positions. From 2008 to 2012 this totaled over $500,000.[4]


In the longer-term picture, the total amount the Iowa teachers union poured into political campaigns of Democrats, either directly or through the Iowa Democrat party – with money received from their members, who were originally paid with taxpayer money – was over $2.3 million. Are 100 percent of the PreK-12 teachers in the state of Iowa registered Democrats? Is Iowa really Michigan in disguise? Ask your child’s teachers directly. Do they approve of their union’s 100 percent support for Democrats?


AFSCME contributed almost $750,000 between 2008 and 2012 to either the Iowa Democrat Party or Democrat County Committees.[5] Another $549,000 was donated to Democrat State Representative or State Senate campaigns.[6] The total money they spent, when you review all contributions back to 2003, was almost $2 million. Again, this is money collected from government workers, who are originally paid by taxpayer dollars, being used to buy influence with the very same Legislators who are responsible for deciding how much to pay them. Round and round the money goes.


There are other examples. Despite the obvious and publicly disclosed financial ties between the anti-school-choice options teachers’ and government workers’ unions and elected officials, many people treat these officials as neutral, objective commentators on the validity and effectiveness of education reform. At the very least, responsible voters should be aware of these financial ties when considering the Legislative actions. They are not unbiased decision makers.


If there were not significant concerns about how campaign contributions and campaign spending might influence elected officeholders, requirements like those of the Iowa Campaign and Ethics Disclosure Board would not be necessary. This data allows voters to see who is influencing policy decisions. Responsible citizens and journalists should use this knowledge in evaluating the credibility of education-reform opponents. Voters must know and understand these financial relationships and how the critics personally benefit from giving voice to the unions’ argument against school choice.


Further, the working members of these unions also need to know and understand where their hard-earned money – paid in dues and donations – is going. They should be aware of the fact that nearly 100 percent of this money is going to only one political party – the Iowa Democrats, and that it amounts to hundreds of thousands of dollars every election cycle. It is highly unlikely that 100 percent of teachers and government workers are registered Democrats, yet Democrat efforts hinder the education of our children by opposing, virtually sight unseen, any suggestion for improving the knowledge, skills, and abilities of our children.


The union members themselves must start taking a closer look at where their money is going, who it is supporting, and what their long-term goals are. Then they must stand up and insist on changes.


[1] “Tod Bowman,” Iowa Campaign and Ethics Disclosure Board, <> accessed on December 3, 2012.
[2] “State Senator Tod Bowman, Iowa Senate District 13,” <> accessed on December 3, 2012.
[3] “Iowa State Education Association PAC,” Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, <> accessed on November 14, 2012.
[4] Ibid.
[5] “AFSCME Pac,” Iowa Campaign and Ethics Disclosure Board, <> accessed on November 14, 2012.
[6] Ibid.


Deborah D. Thornton is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact her at



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