Political barriers exist because public schools are government entities.  In such an environment, the most politically engaged special interest groups are able to exert the most influence over the government-run system.  In most states, it is school employee labor unions (such as the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and their state and local affiliates) that are the primary beneficiaries of the current monopoly system.  They are the most active opponents of school choice because when families are empowered to choose nongovernment schools, the unions lose money.  To union leaders, maintaining the current education monopoly is critical for the political and financial well-being of their organizations.  It is in the unions' self-interest for parents not to be given the ability to choose the best and safest schools for their children. 

In addition to school employee labor unions, opponents of school choice include government school associations, teachers and other unionized school employees, and politicians.  Each is discussed below.

School Employee Labor Unions

            Polls show that school choice is popular with the majority of education "consumers," but it is not favored by school employee labor unions, whose financial support comes from compulsory union dues paid by education "producers."  Numerically, all choice advocates may be superior to their opponents, but the unions are well funded and organized.  Among the most ardent adversaries of parental school choice are the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), who have fought against virtually every choice reform.

Why do unions oppose a reform that is popular with parents and teachers?  A June 1999 study by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, The Impact of School Choice on School Employee Labor Unions, found that unions have strong financial and political incentives to do so.[90]  The study showed that although 100 percent of traditional government school teachers are unionized, the Michigan Education Association and Michigan Federation of Teachers have met with little success in organizing charter and private school teachers.   The implications are that if more students migrate, under a school choice plan, to non-unionized schools, teaching jobs will be created in schools in which teachers are resistant to joining or paying dues to a labor union.  Such a scenario would represent a potential loss of tens of millions of dollars and a concomitant decrease in unions' political influence.

Unions oppose school choice not only with pointed rhetoric, but also by spending large sums of money on lobbying, supporting political candidates, and aggressively campaigning for and against ballot initiatives and referenda.  According to analyses of Federal Election Commission records by the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, the NEA and AFT ranked among the 25 top spenders, in terms of candidate contributions in the 2000 election cycle, out of some 4,000 political action committees.  The AFT's political action committee spent a total of $1.05 million between January 1999 and June 2000—with all but $11,000 going to Democrats.  Similar contributions were made by the NEA, which spent more than $1.1 million through August 2000 with all but $40,000 going to Democratic candidates.  In the summer of 2000, the NEA also increased dues by $5 for each of its 2.5 million members for political action purposes.  This raised more than $8 million, 60 percent of which was designated to help fight school choice initiatives in Michigan and California and other ballot issues.[91]

Unions and the public school system as a whole represent a formidable obstacle due to their sheer size and political power.  For example, Michigan's system of government K-12 schools has 190,000 employees, $12.5 billion in revenue, a $700 million (annual revenue) union/conglomerate funded with compulsory union dues and school health insurance premiums, 4,200 elected officials, and 500 state regulators.[92]

Government School Associations

Government school associations include groups made up of principals, superintendents, administrators, school board members, and other organizations that have allied themselves with those who have an institutional stake in the government's near-monopoly on education.  National and state associations for school boards, school administrators, principals, school business officials, support personnel, and many others, all staunchly oppose expanded school choice for parents.

The defeat of Michigan's voucher proposal in 2000 revealed how far some of these associations will go to defeat choice measures.  In an anti-voucher publication of the Michigan Association of School Boards, school districts were urged to, "Find out what citizens fear about vouchers and develop a few key messages to confirm those fears."  The report further encouraged districts to, "Use negative and repetitive messages . . . .  Once a negative message is developed, it should be simplified and repeated over and over."[93]

Teachers and Other Unionized School Employees

Teachers who perceive school choice as either a threat to their jobs or believe it will harm government schools oppose major changes to the current financial and political structure of school systems.  Despite the fact that government school teachers are more likely to send their children to private schools than is the general public,[94] some government school teachers, through their unions, can be expected to play a prominent role in opposing any ballot or legislative initiative to expand school choice.

Although school employees may campaign off school property on their own time, tax-funded school facilities, equipment and personnel are regularly used in activities that exceed the permissible distribution of factual information.  For instance, in Michigan, school employees were caught illegally distributing anti-school choice yard signs, window signs and brochures; distributing political e-mail; holding anti-school choice meetings, and otherwise using taxpayer dollars to fight a measure that a substantial number of taxpayers support.[95]

Politicians

A number of politicians—state and national—owe their positions to the verbal support and financial backing of school employee labor unions and are therefore more inclined to support the unions' position on school choice.  In the 2000 election cycle, union-backed gubernatorial candidates won 9 of 11 races and nearly doubled their support in the U.S. House of Representatives.  The NEA focused on 27 congressional districts and provided each of their Democratic candidates with a full-time NEA staff member to help coordinate volunteers for the ranks of union locals.  According to the Federal Elections Commission, the NEA spent more than $1 million in the first 18 days of October 2000 alone on phone calls, e-mail, and direct mail efforts in support of presidential candidate Al Gore.[96]



[90]       Mathew J. Brouillette and Jeffrey R. Williams, The Impact of School Choice on School Employee Labor Unions, Mackinac Center for Public Policy, June 1999.  Available on the Internet at http://www.mackinac.org/article.asp?ID=1926

[91]       Jeff Archer, "Unions Pull Out Stops for Elections," Education Week, 1 November 2000, pp. 31, 34.

[92]      Joseph P. Overton, "Lessons learned from school choice wars," The Detroit News, 30 October 2000, p. 9A.  Available on the Internet at http://detnews.com/EDITPAGE/0010/30/edit4/edit4.htm.

[93]      MASB (Michigan Association of School Boards) Journal Special Report, "Against vouchers?  Good offense makes best defense for public school supporters", Winter 1999, p. 7.

[94]       Denis P. Doyle, Where Connoisseurs Send Their Children to School: An Analysis of 1990 Census Data to Determine Where School Teachers Send Their Children to School, The Center for Education Reform, May 1995, p. 21.

[95]      Overton, "Lessons learned.", p. 9A.

[96]     Jeff Archer, "NEA, AFT Leave Mark on Congress, Ballot Measures", Education Week,

15 November 2000, pp. 26, 29.