Contentious Issues Push Union, Reform Spending in New York


Education lobbyists in New York state have spent at least $124 million in an effort to sway lawmakers, officials, and the general public statewide and at the local level since 2006.

Last year alone, $16 million was spent, setting a record according to a review by Gannett’s Albany Bureau. Jon Campbell, writing for Gannett’s Journal News, says that does not include $45.3 million in lobbying expenses by the New York State United Teachers Union (NYSUT) and its New York City subsidiary over the past nine years.

Between education interest groups and teachers unions, more than $285.5 million has been spent on lobbying, campaign contributions, and independent political expenditures over the past ten years. The increase in spending is related to lawmakers’ disagreements over teacher evaluations, state aid for schools, standardized testing, charter schools, and education tax breaks.

The disagreements have become a war between the NYSUT and entities sponsored by Wall Street activists who want more charters, tax credits for donors, and more accountability.

“Now that you have two heavily funded sides going toe to toe, the question in New York is: Is the money going to cancel each other out? Or is one side going to gain an advantage over the other?” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause/NY. “What should emerge are thoughtful, objective proposals. Unfortunately, that’s not the way the game is played in New York.”

Before 2014, teachers unions spent the most on political influencing, but in 2014, the union was outspent by its opponents, $21 million to $16.5 million, according to a report from Common Cause/NY.  The Coalition for Opportunity in Education, founded by investment banker Peter Flanigan, has been funding lobbying, mailers, and advertisements from 2013 through April 2015, mostly for expanding parental choices in schools and tax breaks for donors to public, private, and parochial schools.

NYSUT spokesman Carl Korn calls it unfair.

“The billionaire hedge funders who are trying to buy their version of education reform have triggered an arms race in spending,” he said.

Donors would be allowed to write off 75% of their contribution and create a $500 credit for parents of private school students. The session at the Capitol ends this week, but the donation tax break bill is still up in the air.

Families for Excellent Schools spent $9.6 million last year, the top amount in the state. The New York City-based organization spent on advertisements and rallies, the largest of which included busing several thousand charter school children to Albany in order to rally at the state Capitol. The issue ended with lawmakers approving a bill making it less difficult for schools to find space for their facilities. The group held a rally this year as well to advocate for increasing the state’s cap on charter schools, with the pop singer Ashanti performing.

In the opinion of Gregory Sokaris, writing for the Times Union, the union’s war against the Parental Choice in Education Act is “despicable.” He believes that middle income families who feel they want better alternatives than their own district should be able to receive tax credits to send their children to private schools. He adds that funding and reform will never take place if the work ethic of teachers, students, and parents does not change.

Sokaris continues by suggesting that NYSUT spend more of its members’ dues on:

“… a steady stream of well-funded public service announcements that show statistics about early childhood learning rather than misrepresenting the tax credit, private education and neglecting its dues-paying private school educators.”

ReadMedia writes that the Common Cause/NY report recommends that the final decision on education policy be based on objective analysis, not well-funded lobbying and publicity efforts,  and that discussions about education matters should take place in open public hearings.

Common Cause is part of a coalition for Fair Elections which is based on four basic goals: empowering small donors by matching their contributions with public money; bringing the tremendously high contribution limits down to reasonable levels; disclosing political givers and lobbying entities; and amending the Lobbying Act to be inline with current lobbying practices, including standardization of reporting.