How the Nebraska teachers union quietly manipulates education policy
OHAMA, Neb. – The leaders of the Nebraska State Education Association would prefer to keep a low profile, which is what you might expect from a teachers union in a conservative, right-to-work, red state.
But this deceptive union is anything but passive and quiet.
A recent report from the Platte Institute exposes the NSEA for what it really is – one of the most influential forces in Nebraska state politics, which uses its power to keep charter schools out of the state and guarantee large salaries and protection for teachers, regardless of mediocre academic outcomes.
It all starts with the membership, which is freakishly high for a teachers union in a right-to-work state. Unlike in so many other states, teachers are not obligated to join, but the vast majority have chosen to be members.
The NSEA has approximately 28,000 members and the association brings in $467 every year per member. More than 85 percent of Nebraska teachers belong to the union, according to the report.
At first glance, the NSEA doesn’t appear to be much of a force. A report by the Fordham Institute ranked it the 26th most powerful teachers union in the nation.
However, when it comes to political influence, it’s a different story. The NSEA ranked 13th among state teachers unions in political activity, contributing the 5th highest total amount to state candidates over the past decade, and the 8th highest in political party donations, according to the report.
“Nebraska’s teacher unions are a strong presence in state politics – and have made their election endorsements important for both Democrats and Republicans,” the Fordham report stated.
A previous report by the Platte Institute revealed the NSEA’s Political Action Committee spent more on “negative independent expenditures” (generally politically attack ads) than any other single PAC in the state.
The NSEA has also played a crucial role in financing the state’s labor-affiliated PAC, Nebraskans for Responsible Government.
The union gave the Nebraskans for Responsible Government PAC about $62,500 in the 2012 election cycle – the largest contribution to NRG, reported the North Platte Bulletin.
The investments are not wasted. Every dollar the union contributes to politicians, parties or PACs is carefully targeted.
According to the report, “Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission reports have a total of nearly $170,000 in NSEA contributions to specific members of the State Board of Education and to all but one member of the Legislature’s Education Committee in the most recent elections.”
It’s clear, as the Fordham report states, “teacher unions contribute significantly to state politics in Nebraska.”
That means the union has bought its way into the decision-making process for state education policy, smack dab in the middle of conservative country.
‘The fruits of their labor’
The union’s unlikely strength begins with its high membership count and the dues money that comes with it.
There are many in Nebraska that feel the high unionization rate is due to the combination of peer pressure and ignorance.
“The older teachers are usually union members and they convince the new teachers that it’s the right thing to do in order to ensure job security and the cycle continues as those new teachers get older and mentor other new teachers. So in some way it’s a kind of an ‘everyone does it’ sort of mentality,” said a researcher from the Platte Institute who requested anonymity.
With so many dues-payers, this small-state union can afford to do a lot of lobbying in the state capitol.
“I firmly believe that money matters, and that when it comes to education spending, policymakers are ‘pennywise and pound foolish.’ Pushing those policy makers to provide adequate funding for our public schools will pay dividends in the long run,” NSEA president Nancy Fulton was quoted as saying.
It appears that she’s correct.
Out of the education dollars that Nebraska public schools collect from local, state, and federal sources, 59.6 percent go to teacher salaries and benefits. This percentage stands as the second highest in the nation, behind only union-friendly New York.
The average teacher salary is $47,368, which ranks 28th in the nation. That may not seem very high when compared to average salaries in more union-friendly, higher cost of living states, like Connecticut ($69,000), New York ($72,000) and California ($67,000).
But it’s pretty good money when you consider what taxpayers get for their investment.
The Science and Engineering Readiness Index rating, as reported by the Platte Institute, ranks Nebraska teachers 43rd in the nation in preparing students in math, science, and engineering.
Each state was ranked on a scale of 1 to 5. Nebraska’s ranking of 1.97 is considered “far below” the national average.
Last year Education Week produced a report that ranked states in six areas of educational policy and performance.
Nebraska was given the second worst score and fell well below the national average. The score included a C- grade for teachers and an F for college readiness.
Despite all of that, the teachers make pretty good money.
The NSEA has also been very successful at blocking competition from non-traditional schools that generally do not hire union teachers.
Nebraska currently stands as one of only eight states that prohibit charter schools. And nobody has managed to plant a seed for the type of private school voucher programs that are catching on in so many states.
Over time, the state legislature has gained a reputation for applying a “dead-on-arrival” sticker to any piece of education choice legislation coming down the pike.
“Nebraska has been unsuccessful in passing a charter school law. In the last 10 to 12 years there have been a few attempts, but none that have even made it out of the education committee and on to the Senate floor for a vote,” said a statement from Nebraskans for School Choice.
That’s unusual for a Republican-leaning state where education reform would likely be popular. But the NSEA uses its money to make sure that pro-union policies carry the day in the state capital.
“The union has consistently and effectively opposed other school choice legislation such as vouchers or tax credit scholarships that would empower low-income children to choose better schools than what might otherwise be available,” the Platte Institute report stated.
The two most recent efforts to pass tax credit scholarship legislation, one in 2011 and the other in 2013, both failed.
“The strong influence of the teachers union on Nebraska educational policy cannot be understated,” reports the Platte Institute.
That’s pretty obvious.
There’s no doubt that the NSEA gets a big bang for its buck, particularly when it invests in friendly politicians.
The sad part is that the NSEA is doing its best to hide its political activity from its own members.
“They think their dues are going towards certain job benefits, they don’t know how much money is going to elect preferred candidates and influence policy,” reports the unnamed source from the Platte Institute.
By Trevor TenBrink at EAGnews.org
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