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Education-Focused Campaign Spending Crosses Party Lines

The argument that teachers' unions support Democratic candidates and education advocacy organizations support Republican candidates is too easy (and maybe even lazy), especially during election season.

Have teachers' unions historically been a big, powerful, cash-flush ally of Democrats? Yes. Do education organizations like StudentsFirst and Stand for Children support policies like school choice and teacher evaluation and compensation models based on student test scores? Yes. Do those policies widely appeal to Republicans? Yes.

But these truths no longer exist in silos.

In fact, since President Obama was elected in 2008 (with tremendous support from teachers' unions), he and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have championed policies through Race to the Top and No Child Left Behind waivers that often run afoul of teachers' unions.

And if the unions' recent call for Sec. Duncan's resignation isn't proof of a radical shift in bedfellows, I don't know what is.

"We are in many cases on the same side as unions," said Jonah Edelman, CEO of Stand for Children. "It's over simplistic to say unions are spending this and education advocates are spending that."

Indeed, six years later and just a dozen days before the mid-term elections, the blurred lines between which education organizations support which party candidates are blurrier than ever as teachers' unions pour record-setting amounts of money into state and local races.

To be sure, political action committees for the two national teachers' unions are still giving hand over fist more to Democrats than Republicans. But they've also upped their giving to Republicans, and it hasn't gone unnoticed.

Case in point: Teachers unions have given nearly $1 million so far this election cycle to 35 members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, across 13 states. ALEC is a nonprofit organization of conservative state legislators and private sector representatives that drafts and shares model state-level legislation.

In Illinois, teachers' unions gave more than $775,000 to Republican gubernatorial candidate and state Sen. Kirk Dillard. Dillard, an ALEC member, ended up losing a close primary to Bruce Rauner, a businessman and newcomer to politics.

Instances of teachers' unions supporting Republicans include down-ballot races as well. In Rhode Island, for example, unions are backing the Republican candidate Catherine Taylor who is up against Democrat Dan McKee in the race for lieutenant governor. McKee, among other things, championed a charter school bill that established Mayor Academies, state charter schools that operate with more autonomy than public schools.  

Union officials push back against the notion that they're spending more on state and local campaigns in order to counter the influence that education advocacy organizations have had in recent years.

"Education is primarily funded at the local and state level," said Karen White, political director of the NEA noted. "That's really the reason we're engaged at that level."

Again, thanks in part to the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition and its NCLB waivers, as well as the inability of Congress reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, education policy is more complicated and happening more at the state level than the federal level.

But let's not forget about groups like Democrats for Education Reform, the political action committee established to help elect Democrats less beholden to teachers' unions.

This election cycle, DFER played a big role in Seth Moulton's primary upset over incumbent Democrat Rep. John Tierney of Massachusetts. The organization is also backing Democratic challenger Ro Khanna against Democratic incumbent Rep. Mike Honda in California, a former teacher, as well as Marshall Tuck, the challenger to incumbent Tom Torlakson in the non-political state superintendent race.

As for the education advocacy organizations like Stand for Children and StudentsFirst, this election cycle they are given fairly evenly to candidates, though StudentsFirst is giving more to Democrats than ever. Specifically, this election cycle it directed about 60 percent of its campaign spending to Democrats and 30 percent to Republicans. The rest went to non-partisan candidates and organizations.

Here are a couple of charts from my weekly story, which takes a much deeper dive on overall spending by education-focused political actions committees. Be sure to also take a peek at campaign spending specifically directed at federal races

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