Hey Big Spenders! A look at AFT & NEA Spending During The 2016 Election Cycle

After spending eight long years at odds with the Obama Administration, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA) viewed the 2016 elections as an opportunity to reassert themselves within the Democratic Party and to regain a measure of influence over federal education policy. As a result, the two unions spent massive amounts to get Democrats elected to office, threw their weight behind Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president, and closely coordinated their efforts with national Democratic Party officials.

It goes without saying that things did not work out as planned. While the two teachers unions spent tens of millions of dollars during the 2016 election cycle to get Clinton and other Democrats elected, in the end, they failed to deliver where it counts: the voting booth. As Greg Toppo at USA Today reported shortly after the elections, internal union figures revealed that one out of every three NEA members and one out of every five AFT members voted for Donald Trump.

AFT & NEA certainly never expected that Betsy DeVos would become U.S. Secretary of Education.

Nevertheless, it is worth taking measure of the size and scope AFT and NEA’s efforts to influence the recent elections because it makes clear that they are able to muster considerable resources to fight for their interests. According to campaign finance data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, AFT and NEA spent a combined total of $72,661,520 during the 2016 election cycle. Nearly three-quarters of that amount – $53,534,015 – came from NEA, while the balance ($19,127,505) was spent by AFT.1

Below, I’ve broken down that campaign finance data into four broad categories – contributions to candidates, ballot committees, party committees, and independent expenditure groups – and highlight some interesting facts along the way. You can also search through the data yourself using the search and sorting functions in the tables under each category. As noted above, the underlying campaign finance records come from the National Institute on Money in State Politics and can be accessed at their website,

Contributions to candidates

During the 2016 election cycle, AFT and NEA contributed more than $4.4 million to 332 candidates running for office across 47 states and District of Columbia. Over 85% of those candidates were Democrats and just over 70% of them were eventually elected.

Although three-quarters of their contributions went to candidates running for the U.S. House and Senate, the two unions spent sizable amounts on several gubernatorial races, including $475,000 to support John Gregg’s unsuccessful bid to replace Mike Pence in Indiana, $125,000 to support Gov. Kate Brown in Oregon’s special gubernatorial election, and $75,000 for Chris Koster’s failed campaign for governor in Missouri.

John Gregg, Kate Brown & Chris Koster

AFT and NEA also made plays in lower-profile races, such as Glenda Ritz’s failed bid for reelection as Indiana’s State Superintendent of Public Instruction. Ritz made headlines back in 2012 for her surprise victory over incumbent Tony Bennett, whom she pilloried during the campaign for his support of the Common Core State Standards. Last year, the two teachers unions gave Ritz a combined total of $55,000 to her campaign.

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Contributions to ballot committees

A look at overall total contributions reveals that ballot committees were the biggest beneficiaries of AFT and NEA political cash. The two unions plowed more than $7.1 million into the Save Our Public Schools campaign, which successfully fought a ballot initiative to raise the charter school cap in Massachusetts. They also spent nearly $5 million in Georgia to defeat a proposal to adopt a statewide takeover district modeled on Louisiana’s Recovery School District.

However, their efforts to pass ballot initiatives in other states ran into trouble. In Oregon, AFT and NEA gave more than $3.5 million to two groups behind Measure 97, a ballot initiative that would have raised corporate taxes to pay for K-12 education and other state services. As noted in a previous post, Measure 97 was soundly rejected by voters, 59% to 41%.

NEA also spent $2.6 million in support of a ballot initiative in Maine – Question 2 – which would have raised taxes on wealthy citizens to help pay for the state’s public schools. Although the proposal passed by the narrowest of margins – about 9,500 votes – Governor Paul LePage signed a bill last month that repealed Question 2.

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Contributions to party committees

Perhaps not surprisingly, 97% of the teachers unions’ contributions to party committees went to Democrats. NEA gave $350,000 to the North Carolina Democratic Party to boost Attorney General Roy Cooper’s campaign against Republican Governor Pat McCrory. The vote was so close that the State Board of Elections ordered a partial recount of ballots, which eventually confirmed that Cooper won by 10,000 votes out of more than 4.7 million cast.

Democrat Roy Cooper (left) defeated incumbent Republican Gov. Pat McCrory in North Carolina’s gubernatorial election last year.

AFT and NEA also steered $230,000 to the Montana Democratic Party, whose standard bearer, incumbent Governor Steve Bullock, was up for reelection. Bullock easily defeated his Republican opponent, Greg Gianforte, who somehow managed to body slam a reporter and get himself elected to Congress six months later.

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Contributions to independent expenditure groups

Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC essentially removed limits on political spending by nonprofit organizations, super PACs have become dominant in the realm of campaign finance. Unlike traditional PACs, super PACs can spend an unlimited amount of money to advocate for or against political candidates, but are “independent” in the sense that they cannot directly give to candidates, nor coordinate with their campaigns.

During the 2016 election cycle, AFT and NEA gave tens of millions of dollars to super PACs and other outside groups, including some of the biggest players in Democratic politics. For example, the two unions gave Priorities USA Action, the main super PAC behind Hillary Clinton’s campaign, $2.5 million over the course of 2016. House Majority PAC and Senate Majority PAC, which support Democrats running for the U.S. House and Senate, received nearly $1.6 million from the teachers unions. They also contributed $960,000 to Women Vote!, a super PAC whose mission is to “elect pro-choice Democratic women to office.”

But AFT and NEA also used independent spending groups to influence state and local races. The two unions steered $865,000 to Kentucky Family Values, a super PACs supporting Democratic candidates for the state legislature, in an effort to prevent Gov. Matt Bevin from passing a law allowing charter schools in the Bluegrass State.2 They also put $300,000 behind Democrat Melissa Romano’s unsuccessful bid for Montana Superintendent of Schools. In addition, AFT spent nearly $370,000 to influence the outcome of last fall’s school board elections in New Orleans, as I revealed in a post earlier this year.

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  1. It should be noted that these totals do not include contributions made to “dark money” organizations. Although both AFT and NEA often decry the use of dark money by their political opponents, both unions have used dark money organizations to hide their campaign contributions. 
  2. It didn’t work. Kentucky’s first charter school law was passed by the legislature and signed by Gov. Bevin in March of this year. 

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.


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  1. Wow. How lousy a candidate must Hillary have been, and how horrible was Obama if those teachers flipped against her (just more Obama policy, or Obamicy) to vote for trump. TRUMP for gosh sakes! So how many dues paying teachers did it take to raise that money? Maybe 2 or 3 million? I don’t know but they’d each have to scrape up 10 or 20 bucks each to get Hillary’s attention. Thats gum under your sest movie theater money baby! I mean, Hillary’d never let any of THEM into one of her fancy big-ticket parties-but she’d take a check from Randi or Lily…or both. It should be the Bloomberg or Gates or Murdoch easy, where it takes only one guy with sick money that never taught a day in their lives to buy news and politicians and policy. Now THAT’S big spending! Oh well…back to hoping those three aren’t also eyeing my pension. Whoops…too late.

      • You’re welcome and thank you for targeting the pocket change accumulated by millions versus the millions spent by a few. I traded coherency for honesty but it’s a loss I accept.

        • How much evidence until you admit you’ve been played? Not only do teachers unions not work in the best interests of students and families, but they don’t really work in the best interests of rank-and-file teachers like yourself. I was a teachers union member, too; I know how you’re feeling. Torn. Sucks, but get on with it and admit the truth.

          • You make valid points, and I’d be with you 100% on the ineffectiveness of the union, less in terms of it’s purpose. It has become a pageant of entitlement for union leaders-much like the Democrats have (party-wise), where lip service is paid to activism while it in practice ends up being circle-our-wagons-ism. But in the long run, an lengthy, in depth analysis of exactly how union leaders direct the money spent by millions of dues paying rank-and-filers (imagine $20…maybe $30 each?) in that pageant (which does get me a little torn) still gets me far less torn than the absence of analysis on how a mere handful of millionaires and billionaires who have never taught but are behind efforts to fund anti-union campaigns. Probably my union could tell me, but I don’t pay attention to their pointless propaganda either. I guess I look at face value: If I was going to assess “who has the best interests of the working class and poor when it comes to how to educate the public”, and had to choose millions of organized laborers who have always been blamed in times of economic, international and domestic strife, vs a few bajillionaires behind much of the strife…Guess I defend the former.
            I am pleased to know you spent some time in the field you write about.

      • You’re welcome and thank you for appreciating my readership. I was drawn by the hope of seeing the few behind the curtain but was surprised to see another napalming of the many in the field. But seriously and more coherently: targeting the pocket change accumulated by millions for deep analysis versus the leverage bought with millions spent by a few is to the reform agenda as in coherency is to Dan. I traded coherency for honesty and intdgrity plus a healthy dose of tenuous analogy, but it’s a loss I accept. No fan of my weak rollover with my money for a seat at the table union leaders btw. I’d spend the money on some flaming bags of poo to toss on a few porches.

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