Colorado Teachers Unions Number One in Political Giving to State Candidates

Halloween is this week, which means it’s almost time for little old me to don the green paint and flex my growing muscles as the Incredible Hulk. (I can hear some of those murmurs out there: “Yeah, incredible is right!”) All right, so maybe just because I put on the costume and go door to door, no one is going to ask me to pick up a car — except for possibly one of those “smart” cars — and hurl it at the bad guys. You may have figured out I’m not really that strong.

But how strong is the teachers union in Colorado? It’s a topic you hear about plenty from my Education Policy Center friends. Well, today the Fordham Institute released the most thorough study of its kind: “How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions? A State-by-State Comparison.” If Mike Antonucci says it’s a “much-needed reference work,” then you know it’s worth your attention.

The authors looked at everything from what percentage of teachers are members to laws about tenure and collective bargaining. Adding up all the categories, Colorado ranked 35th overall. That means our state is just inside the bottom third, which represents the weaker state unions. However, in one category our state’s teachers union finished number one:

By rank, what percent of the contributions to state candidates from the ten highest-giving sectors was donated by teacher unions?

The answer? 25.8 percent, just over one-fourth. No other teachers unions have such a disproportionate influence over state elections. You can see that in the Colorado Education Association’s and American Federation of Teachers’ reported political giving from previous elections. More than $1.4 million combined in the 2010 election, with this year’s amount looking like it won’t be too far behind.

Some of Colorado’s lofty ranking can be attributed to the state’s campaign finance laws were written to benefit unions. But how much of that political strength depends on the involuntary nature of the process? I mean, many Colorado teachers automatically have two separate political funds invisibly siphoned out of their paycheck that they can ask for separately once a year — if they know the deadline. If they miss the deadline or aren’t even aware it exists, they could be out as much as $63.

What happens, though, if someone calls the union office wanting to know whether dues money is spent on political campaigns? As a couple of Independence Institute volunteers recorded to share, in some instances those offices give out bad information. One office gave out the wrong refund amounts. Another explicitly stated that the funds don’t support candidates, which she later corrected with the other caller.

According to Fordham’s new rankings, Colorado ranks 35th in teachers union strength. Yet one is left to wonder what would happen to that ranking if teachers had a level playing field of information to go along with their increasing membership options.