A well-funded network of government unions stands in opposition to parents, students, and lawmakers eyeballing education reform in Pennsylvania. 

Until recently, they have cowed and cajoled elected officials into stalling some of the more audacious legislative initiatives. But in the aftermath of the COVID-19 shutdowns and a critical court ruling, the atmosphere may be ripe to advance school choice initiatives that enjoy broad public support. This may be why union operatives have seized on opaque techniques to avoid scrutiny of their political spending.

As a candidate, Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat who took office in January, expressed some support for school choice. But government unions that donated to Shapiro and other elected officials remain steadfastly opposed. So, what calculus will he make now that he’s in office?

With roughly 180,000 members, the Pennsylvania State Education Association is the largest public employee union in the state. It is also an affiliate of the National Education Association, the largest labor union in the country. The NEA has more than $400 million in assets, according to Influence Watch.  

Campaign finance records show that in the 2022 election cycle, the Pennsylvania State Education Association’s political action committee donated $775,000 to Shapiro’s gubernatorial campaign, more than $1 million to Democratic legislative candidates, and just over $300,000 to Republicans. That’s a lot of money and influence for the proponents of school choice to overcome.

And there’s now an added wrinkle: The teachers union has also set up its own political organization called the Fund for Student Success, a 527 organization under the federal tax code, which means it can spend unlimited funds supporting or opposing candidates for political office. 

The Fund for Student Success has enabled the state teachers union to divert union dues to political activity without the union having to disclose the end recipient of political contributions on reports it files with the U.S. Department of Labor. These reports show that the union gave $3.27 million to the Fund for Student Success from 2018 to 2022, including $1.775 million during the 2021–22 election cycle. 

However, the Fund for Student Success must file financial disclosure forms with the IRS. These filings show that the organization contributed $1.475 million to the Democratic Governors Association, which was the largest contributor to Shapiro, giving more than $7.25 million to Shapiro for Governor through its political action committee. 

“Accounts like this are set up so unions can dodge accountability from their members,” said Andrew Holeman, a policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

He continued: “Not all teachers support the political agenda of their union. The account is called the Fund for Student Success when it has nothing to do with students. And then the union says it is for member communication, but they send all the money to political organizations. This makes it hard for Pennsylvania teachers to track how their dues are being spent.”

What are the implications for the school choice movement in a swing state like Pennsylvania?

On deck in the state legislature are proposed Lifeline Scholarships that would provide K-12 students in the bottom 15% of the commonwealth’s lowest-performing public schools with almost $7,000 each in flexible education spending to use for schooling of their choosing. Families could use the scholarships to cover tuition costs for alternative schools, tutoring services, textbooks, curriculum, and specialized needs. 

The current version of the legislation, House Bill 2169, passed the full Pennsylvania House last April and has advanced to the Senate floor.

The union has described the scholarship proposal as a “full attack on public education,” and it certainly expects to receive some return on its campaign investments.

It’s Not About “Playing Politics” 

But Stephen Bloom, a former state representative and vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, points to recent trends that bode well for the school choice movement. 

“In the aftermath of COVID-19, people across party lines now recognize that we can’t wait for failing schools to reform themselves, and we can’t allow special interest groups to stand in the way of vital reforms at the expense of our most vulnerable students,” he said.

“Enacting Lifeline Scholarships is not about playing politics or carrying water for big campaign donors who put the demands of powerful government union bureaucrats over the needs of students,” he continued. “Instead, it’s about implementing sound policies that can have unifying influence across the state while ensuring a brighter future for kids.” 

Bloom also views the Lifeline Scholarship proposal as a “win-win” for Shapiro that should transcend any concerns about special interests. 

“The governor has an opportunity to lead a bipartisan effort that would produce immediate results for students,” he said. “Given the high stakes for Pennsylvania kids and families trapped in the worst schools, it’s imperative that Shapiro follow through on his campaign rhetoric and extend life-changing educational opportunities to Pennsylvania children most in need.” 

Bloom cites data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “nation’s report card,” that highlight the need for reform. The figures show fewer than 3 in 10 Pennsylvania eighth graders are proficient in math, an 11 percentage point decline from 2019.

The fact the teachers unions would use “an obscuring tactic to delay disclosure or limit scrutiny from the outside” suggests they recognize “their brand has been hurt because of some of their decisions,” Michael Watson, research director with the Capital Research Center, said. “The supporters of school choice need to keep the light on these organizations that are supporting the status quo. An interest group throwing around six-figure expenditures cannot be ignored.”

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