The Structural Inequality Lobby

Tim Carney’s piece on the power of the teachers’ unions and their massive push to drive a stake through the heart of Washington, DC’s modest and locally popular experiment in school vouchers should be sobering to anyone with a romantic view of democracy. 

Beltway bandits, defense contractors, influential industries—most of them pale in their influence efforts compared to the teachers unions, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Take defense contractors. Lockheed Martin, the top recipient of military contracts most years, spent more on politics than any other defense firm in the 2008 elections. They still spent less than the American Federation of Teachers, which shelled out $2.8 million in the last cycle—with nearly every AFT dime going to Democrats.

The top two teachers unions—AFT and the National Education Association—spent more combined, $5.27 million, than the top two defense contractors.

The top five lobbying firms, combined, didn’t equal the AFT and the NEA in federal contributions in the 2008 cycle. Both of the teachers unions gave more than any oil company, and the NEA and AFT combined gave more than the top four oil companies combined.

These contributions give the unions clout, and federal lobbying records show they use this clout. Again, on closer inspection, the teachers unions look an awful lot like those corporate special interests Democrats supposedly oppose.

The NEA employs four different lobbying firms in Washington, in addition to their in-house lobbying arm, which includes at least six lobbyists.  Over the past two years, the NEA spent $10.7 million on lobbying. Reviewing the filings of the NEA, the AFT, and their K Street hires reveals that lobbying to kill DC vouchers was a priority.


Again, there are substantive arguments against D.C. school vouchers. But with this money trail, it appears that congressional Democrats’ push to kill vouchers is simply a case of the piper playing the tune that the AFT has called.

If you believe, as I do, that the returns to further government spending on education, given its present structure, is zero or negative, and that the best hope for increasing the quality of education for the least well-off, and for increasing economic and social mobility generally, is to legalize competitive markets in education, then you will tend to believe, as I do, that this attempt to destroy voucher programs before than can show themselves effective is nothing less than a powerful political interest group screwing over poor people by bending the democratic process to their advantage. The sad thing, from my perspective, is that strong Democratic partisans (and especially members of the teachers’ unions) are likely to violently reject any such argument out of hand on the basis of their deep conviction that the Democratic Party cares about the poor, and so would certainly not allow itself to become captured by groups with interests diametrically opposed to interests of the poor. As time goes on, I think the relevant social science is going to brutalize the standard Democratic position, and the clash between the Democratic Party’s most powerful client and the poor will become increasingly stark. But for now, the unions will probably succeed in temporarily extinguishing the possibility of demonstrating a superior alternative to the status quo system of education.