Meet the highest rollers in Washington politics: Teachers
Washington Education Association spending outpaces all other political players
No political player spent more on Washington State politics this year than the Washington Education Association. Let’s take a look at how they spent it, and how they did.
The powerful teachers union and WEA-PAC, its political arm, spent $3.75 million this year, according to filings with the Public Disclosure Commission, far outpacing the other labor and business committees on the list of political spending heavyweights.
WEA-PAC’s money comes from voluntary donations from the union’s members. About half of WEA members — 42,000 people — belong to the PAC, according to its website. They give at least $2.25 a month. The largest individual donor this year gave $400. Spreading that $3.75 million across the membership works out to $90 per WEA-PAC member. There’s strength in numbers, right?
Here’s where the money went:
Strong Public Schools, the committee formed to defend Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal against his mendacious challenger, got $500,000. Reykdal won handily.
New Direction, which supported Democrats in tight state Senate and House races around the state, got $500,000. As we reported Monday, the results were mixed.
The union was the second-largest donor to the Washington State Democratic Party, giving $500,000, and endorsing the party’s candidates up and down the ticket. Democrats lost just one statewide race.
The Harry Truman Fund, the soft-money committee controlled by House Democrats, got $500,000 as well.
And perhaps most significantly, the WEA spent more than $500,000 on a single state Senate race in a bid to oust business-friendly Democrat Mark Mullet, whom the union views as an adversary and an obstacle, with progressive Ingrid Anderson, a nurse and union member herself, who would likely be an eager ally. Mullet is currently barely surviving by 101 votes.
Andersen was one of three state Senate challengers who got aggressive WEA support. Only one, T’wina Nobles, is currently leading, by slightly more than 1,000 votes over incumbent Republican Steve O’Ban in Pierce County’s 28th District. Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson is losing to recently appointed Sen. Ron Muzzall by nearly 1,400 votes in the 10th District, which is mostly Whidbey and Camano Islands. WEA-PAC played in seven House races; if the current results hold up, they’ll go 4-3.
They also gave nearly $200,000 in $2,000 “double-max” donations directly to individual lawmakers and candidates, mostly incumbent Democrats in safe districts who won easily last week. Most of that money got laundered through the surplus-funds shuffle we wrote about last month, and poured into tight races around the state.
Lobbyists will tell you that campaign money doesn’t buy lawmakers’ votes; it buys access. Whatever WEA-PAC is buying, it’s buying in bulk. The union declined to answer questions from the Observer about what it hopes to get for all this spending. Luckily they have a website:
“Electing pro-public education, pro-union candidates helps us have pro-public education, pro-union policy makers that support things like fully funding education, smaller class sizes, professional and competitive wages, collective bargaining rights, affordable health care, common sense testing.”
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The union also gave $150,000 to the successful campaign to keep the state’s new sex-education law, which opponents had forced to the ballot via a referendum campaign. That law, adopted by the Legislature earlier this year with the union’s vocal support, got 58 percent of the vote, which may be reflective of the waning influence of religious conservatives around the state. That spending was an example of the union’s well-established willingness to defend — or overturn — legislation at the ballot box.
All this is important because it makes the WEA one of the most powerful players in Washington State politics, and the most powerful player on what the taxpayers spend the most money on: K-12 education. With 90,000 members and the high regard many voters have for teachers, they’d be formidable anyway, but money and manpower is better than manpower alone.
Education is Washington State’s paramount duty, per the state constitution, and lawmakers spend more than half of the $53.3 billion biennial budget on it. That money mostly goes to pay teachers and other school employees. The Legislature, the governor and the superintendent of public instruction also set education policy, including what subjects students should learn, how to measure how well students are learning those subjects, and how teachers are held accountable for students’ performance.
As befits an organization that represents people who have accepted the long hours, short pay and many challenges of teaching young people, the WEA claims some high-minded political ground, but first and foremost, it’s a union. Unions advocate for higher pay, better benefits and better working conditions for their members.
Teachers’ actual contracts are negotiated between the WEA’s many locals — from the Seattle Education Association to the tiny Asotin Education Association in the state’s southeast corner — and local school districts.
The WEA, meanwhile, essentially negotiates with the Legislature, Gov. Jay Inslee, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Christ Reykdahl over the policy, rules and, most importantly, the billions of dollars that form the framework of those contracts. So it shouldn’t be any surprise that the union spends a ton of money to see friendly faces on the other side of the table.
The WEA also needs powerful friends to help fend off adversaries and defend against outright enemies in Olympia.
Stand For Children, an education policy advocacy group fueled by foundations and big individual donors, was among the biggest donors to the campaign to protect Mullet against Anderson’s challenge. Stand For Children has frequently clashed with the WEA on issues including charter schools.
The WEA also faces a slow-moving existential threat from a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that union-represented employees in the public sector can’t be compelled to pay for that representation if they don’t choose to join the union. Conservative groups intent on weakening public-sector labor’s influence on state governments are actively engaged in trying to get union members to defect.
That means the WEA has extra incentive these days to prove its worth to its members at the negotiating table, at the ballot box, and in the halls of the capitol.
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