The Tennessee Education Association, the teachers union in the state, spent more than $500,000 between January 1, 2017 and December 31, 2018 on political activities, according to its filings with the Tennessee Bureau of Ethics and Campaign Finance, most of which went to candidates for state offices.
TEA membership is a fractional one percent of NEA’s total membership with about 30,000 members according to the organization’s most recent Form 990 filing with the IRS available through Foundation Center.
A review of all the filings of the Tennessee Education Association Fund for Children & Publication Political Action Committee (PAC) with the TBECF revealed that the organization spent $529,000 during this two year period, the majority of which was spent on direct financial contributions to state political party organizations, state legislative candidates and gubernatorial candidates.
The breakdown by category is:
- $274,000 was donated to or on behalf of state legislative candidates and state gubernatorial candidates
- $138,000 was donated to state political parties or political action committees associated with state political parties
- $73,000 was spent on political consulting and polling fees
- $44,000 was donated to the mysterious Heartland Accountability Project, based in Iowa, which appears to be a dark money political action committee whose purpose is to attack conservative Republican state legislative candidates in Tennessee and elsewhere.
The Top Ten recipients of political donations (both cash and in-kind) in the state were:
- $40,000 to the Tennessee Tomorrow PAC, affiliated with the Tennessee Democratic Party
- $32,500 to the Tennessee Democratic Party
- $32,500 to the House Republican Caucus
- $28,300 to State Sen. Katrina Robinson (D-Memphis)
- $15,000 to the Senate Republican Caucus
- $14,000 to State Rep. Dwayne Thompson (D-Cordova)
- $13,000 to Republican gubernatorial candidate Beth Harwell and her PAC
- $12,500 to State Rep. James Coley (R-Bartlett)
- $11,800 to State Sen. Raumesh Akbari (D-Memphis)
- $11,000 to Democrat gubernatorial candidate Craig Fitzhugh and his PAC
TEA’s IRS Form 990 filings from 2014 to 2016 show the majority of funding comes from membership dues, but as dues decline in relation to membership, grants from the parent NEA organization have increased.
In 2014, TEA’s membership dues as a percent of total revenue was 90 percent, with 9 percent coming from NEA. By 2016, just 82 percent of TEAs revenue came from membership dues, while NEA’s contributions increased to 14 percent.
Over the three-year period from 2014 to 2016, TEA has lost about 13 percent of its membership and cut nearly 20 percent of its staff according to the organization’s IRS Form 990s covering those years.
However, TEA’s expenditures on political activities increased in the most recent 2017-2018 election cycle over the prior statewide elections in 2015-2016.
According to TEA’s financial disclosures presented on the State of Tennessee’s Online Campaign Finance website, the organization spent about $430,000 on political activities in 2015-2016 which increased by $100,000 to approximately $540,000 for the 2017-2018 elections, adjusted for unassignable or unrelated expenditures.
Contributions to the Tennessee Education Association Fund For Children & Public Education political action committee (PAC) are primarily “unitemized.” Unitemized contributions – that is, without detailing the donor’s full name, address, amount, date and election the contribution is designated for – are permitted under state law provided that the amount contributed is less than $100 in a given reporting period.
In the 2015-2016 election cycle, unitemized contributions to the TEA PAC were about $345,000 and increased to about $525,000 in the 2017-2018 election cycle.
The 2017-2018 election cycle not only saw an increase in political contributions over 2015-2016, there was also a shift in who the contributions went to.
In the 2015-2016 election cycle, approximately 61 percent of the contributions that could be attributed to a specific candidate or other PAC went to Democrats. However, in the 2017-2018 cycle, the majority shifted with 55 percent of the TEA PAC contributions going to Republican candidates or Republican-affiliated PACs.
Several of the House Republican candidates the TEA PAC opposed in the August 2018 primaries ended up winning their race, including Scott Cepicky (Culleoka), Mark Cochran (Englewood), Rick Eldridge (Morristown), Sabi “Doc” Kumar (Springfield), Justin Lafferty (Knoxville), and Iris Rudder (Winchester).
In the August 2018 Republican primaries, the TEA PAC also supported former committee chairs Barry Doss and Tim Wirgau who were defeated by Clay Doggett (Pulaski) and Bruce Griffey (Paris), respectively.
The TEA PAC also dipped into the gubernatorial primaries, endorsing and financially supporting both a Republican and Democrat candidate, former Republican Speaker of the House Beth Harwell with $13,000 and former Democrat House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh with $11,000, each of whom ended up coming in last place in their respective party primary.
The TEA enjoys a privilege not afforded to any other organization in the state which is an automatic payroll deduction from a public education worker’s paycheck with those funds then used for political activities without getting the worker’s permission or input as to which candidates or causes are supported.
Critics of the practice say this is a violation of the employee’s first amendment rights and it reduces their paycheck for things they wouldn’t necessarily spend their money on, if they had a say in the matter.
Part of the dues paid by teachers and education professionals to the TEA, as an affiliate of the national organization, are directed to the NEA.
As an affiliate organization, the TEA may be more low-key in its non-education related agenda, but its parent organization is not.
The NEA has reportedly used its contributions to support Planned Parenthood. And, according to 2nd Vote, “the conservative watchdog for corporate activism” founded by Dr. David L. Black, the NEA is a corporate supporter of the far-left Center for American Progress founded by John Podesta.
In the 2018 midterms, NEA supported Democrat Phil Bredesen for U.S. Senate with $6,453, slightly above the average to 39 Senate Democrats which was $6,391, where he was defeated by Republican Marsha Blackburn by a margin of 55 to 44 percent. This is compared to NEAs average to three U.S. Senate Republicans was $1,666, according to Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets.Org.
In light of some of the actual election results in Tennessee versus who TEA and NEA endorsed and financially supported, it is likely that most Tennesseans are not in alignment with those organizations and yet those whose paychecks are subject to an automatic deduction have no say in the matter.
An opinion column written by now State Representative Robin Smith that appeared in the Times Free Press in March 2016, explained the need for a bill sponsored at that time by former State Representative Billy Spivey (R-Lewisburg) and State Senator Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) during the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
The bill, referred to as the Paycheck Protection Act, would have prohibited school districts from using payroll deductions to pay professional employees’ dues to professional employee associations.
The bill failed the next month in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee.
Laura Baigert is a senior reporter at The Tennessee Star.