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February 2013 Brief: Volume 20, Number 6

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Unions, Administrators, and School Choice


by Deborah D. Thornton



School-choice options including private schools, liberal open enrollment, charter schools, school-tuition organizations, and online education have been proving their value for more than a decade. Additionally, lawmakers nationwide 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. In many states these reforms have for the first time truly empowered parents.


Yet despite documented success, school options in Iowa continue to face stiff resistance from entrenched factions in the traditional education establishment. Among the most stubborn opponents of parents deciding where and how their children are educated is organized labor, specifically the teachers and government 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.


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 contribute heavily to local, state, and federal elected officials. Once elected, these officials decide how much money to pay the teachers and bureaucrats. The money comes from the voters and taxpayers.


The elected officials the unions contribute to are nearly 100 percent Democrats. The Democrats in the Iowa Legislature do not support school choice, but advocate strongly for 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 officials then contribute to the unions from their paychecks. And round the money goes.


A large amount of the money received and spent by the Iowa Democrat Party in 2012 originated with the ISEA. During the 2012 election cycle, the Iowa Democrat Party received over $600,000 from the ISEA.[1] If you go back to 2003, it totals over $1.5 million.


Further, almost 100 percent of the ISEA political action committee donations going directly to candidates for Iowa House and Senate go to the Democrats, who support their anti-school-choice education positions: from 2008 to 2012 this totaled over $500,000.[2] In looking at the longer term picture, the total amount the Iowa teachers union poured into political campaigns – with money received from their members, who were originally paid with taxpayer money – was over $2.3 million.


AFSCME contributed almost $750,000 between 2008 and 2012 to either the Iowa Democrat Party or Democrat County Committees.[3] Another $550,000 was donated directly to State Representative or State Senate Campaigns, and all except for $1,000 was to Democrats.[4] The money they spent, when you review all contributions back to 2003, was almost $2 million. Again, this was money collected from workers, who are originally paid by taxpayer dollars, being used to buy influence with the very same Legislators who are responsible for collecting the money to pay them. Round and round the money goes.


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 school choice. At the very least, responsible voters should be aware of these financial ties when considering the Legislative actions. Legislators are not unbiased decision makers. Responsible citizens and journalists should use this knowledge in evaluating the credibility of school-choice opponents.


Administrators of school districts are another frequently cited source in negative school-choice articles. When thought of as CEOs of monopolies, their anti-competitive point of view comes as no surprise. The first instinct of any monopoly is to attack a new innovative entrant in the marketplace, not to compete. Similarly, instead of responding to innovation and choice by improving their own educational offerings, school administrators have attacked the quality of their competitors. Again, you need only to follow the money to understand why.


Students represent enrollments valued for the tax dollars they bring to a traditional school budget’s bottom line. The larger the budget, the larger the administrator’s salary and benefits. When evaluating school administrators’ criticism of school choice, journalists and taxpayers must keep in mind the fact that administrators have direct financial interests in dissuading students in their districts from enrolling in alternative schools.


Many elected officials and school administrators opposed to school choice have close financial ties with and among each other, which call into question their ability to fully and independently evaluate these options. The financial ties exclude the children and parents who are supposed to be at the center of public education, because they do not control the money.


Organizations such as the National Education Association and its many state affiliates, including the ISEA, make up the largest single block opposed to school-choice options. They are opposed to virtually every educational option except for our children sitting in chairs in front of their approved and licensed membership, whether or not the children are actually learning.


Groups such as AFSCME are concentrating on protecting their government jobs and salaries, no matter what is happening with the workers making the tax money which pays them. Rather than be a force for change and reform, they have chosen to support the status quo. In their zeal to protect their livelihoods, they have lost sight of ensuring that all children – whether rich or poor, urban or rural – have the types of schools that best match their learning needs.


While the teachers and government unions are upfront about their opposition to school choice, the news stories quoting the critics fail to report the financial relationships and inherent bias. The public would be better served if voters and taxpayers understand these financial relationships and how the critics personally benefit from giving voice to the unions’ argument.


Further, the working union members 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 expanding the options 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, focus on our children, and insist on changes.


[1] “Iowa State Education Association PAC,” Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board, <> accessed on November 14, 2012.
[2] Ibid.
[3] “AFSCME Pac,” Iowa Campaign and Ethics Disclosure Board, <> accessed on November 14, 2012.
[4] Ibid.


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

Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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