During tough economic times the government has to make difficult decisions on whether or not to cut funding or to raise taxes. Look at any government budget proposal and you’ll see congressmen and senators quarreling over what gets cut and if taxes should be raised. It seems every time a budget proposal hits the floor it isn’t until the final hour that both sides agree on a budget. Programs like the military spending, Medicaid and Medicare dominate the federal budget, but others like education also make up a good chunk of the budget.
Currently the federal education budget is $68.1 billion and there are several players influencing this budget and the overall educational system in the United States. Here are five powerful groups you may not know are shaping the U.S. educational system.
5) National Education Association
The National Education Association is the largest labor union in the U.S. and represents public school teachers and support staff, as well as faculty and staff at numerous colleges and universities around the country. In total, the union has 3.2 million members, mostly in the Western half of the United States. With that many members it’s no surprise that Fortune magazine ranked the National Education Association in the top-15 of its Washington Power 25 survey of the strongest lobbying groups in Washington D.C.
The group’s power stems the large budget it generates from membership dues, which it uses to fund political candidates and campaigns for educational measures. Teachers are allowed to opt out of membership dues if they don’t appreciate what the union funds, but sometimes teacher’s can have difficulty opting out, as one Colorado teacher found.
Since 1989, the National Education Association has donated more than $41 million to politicians.
4) American Federation of Teachers
The second largest teachers union in the country, the American Federation of Teachers has 1.5 million members, mostly on the Eastern half of the United States. In 1998 there was a proposed merger between the NEA and AFT, but it was rejected by both groups. Just think, the merger could have created a “super” union.
The union has donated more than $34 million dollars to politicians, with the majority of donations going to the Democratic party. This shouldn’t be a surprise as generally teachers tend to side more with Democrat issues.
One issue that both the NEA and AFT are lobbying for is the abandonment of a voucher system, which only exists in Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin (Milwaukee only) and the District of Columbia. A voucher system is where the government issues a certificate that parents can apply toward tuition for a private school rather than the state school their child is assigned. At this time the voucher system has not made or lost ground and like many other educational bills proposed in Congress, not much reform has actually occurred.
3) The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
For years, Bill Gates has focused on overhauling the U.S. educational system by asking lawmakers to replace large schools with smaller ones and change some of the nation’s education policies. His foundation has donated large amounts of money to change the way school practices, including removing the seniority system and using student test scores to evaluate teachers. In total, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spent $373 million on education in 2009, and devoted $78 million for education advocacy.
One of the biggest issues the foundation supports is the use of parent trigger laws that bypass school boards and give parents at the worst public schools the opportunity to band together and promote change by either:
Allowing a charter school nearby that is “doing better” than the local school to take it over (charter school conversion)
Firing half the staff, bringing in new leadership, and getting more local community control over making changes (turnaround)
Forcing the school district to find a new principal and make a few other small fixes (transformation)
Gaining “collective bargaining rights” by collecting names on petitions
So far, these laws exist in California, Louisiana and Texas, and have not shown to be very influential. However, parent trigger laws are strongly opposed by unions like the NEA and AFT, causing tension between these unions and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation does have allies, including the Walton Family Foundation and…
2) Democrats for Education Reform
Democrats for Education Reform is a political action committee run by a number of hedge-fund managers and investment bankers. The group’s goal is to provide equal funding and opportunity between rich and poor public schools. To do this, DFER raises money for Democrats who push education reform that includes closing “failing” public schools and creating more charter schools. One of the group’s biggest donors is the Walton Family Foundation.
DFER is a big proponent of parent trigger laws and the backs the Los Angeles-based group Parent Revolution in its goal to give all parents the opportunity to aid struggling schools. In fact, former California State Senator Gloria Romero, who devised the parent trigger law, is now the director of DEFR’s California branch. Just recently, the U.S. Conference of Mayors met in Orlando, Fla. to discuss the issue of parent trigger laws, voting unanimously for parents to garner more power of schools.
1) California Teacher’s Association
While the other four groups are influencing education on both the federal and state level, the California Teacher’s Association only has to deal with influencing politicians and citizens in the state of California. The teacher union has 325,000 members and is the most influential spender in California politics, spending more money, $211.8 million, on politicians and to influence California voters than others like AT&T, Chevron and Phillip Morris combined. This is significant because as a global economy, California has the eighth highest gross-domestic product in the world. So, education practices in the state affect millions of people, especially with the state deficit projected to hit $15.7 billion.
In March, the CTA gave California Governor Jerry Brown $1.5 million to raise taxes in order to hold off budget cuts to education, and the group has played a strong role in overall California politics, from ballot issues to politician backing.
In 2010, Programme for International Student Assessment released released scores on student performances in 34 countries, finding the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science and 25th in math. As a nation with an amazing college system, it is remarkable the countries K-12 system could be so far behind other countries. Serious reform needs to take place to aid students and give them the best education possible. It will be interesting what these five major education influencers can achieve to help those students most in need.