Should unions endorse candidates?

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This might be the local teachers union's first time endorsing and contributing to a candidate's campaign, but it's not unusual elsewhere.

Unions have been contributing to local politics for a long time.

Since there is usually a low turnout in school board elections, a union's endorsement could have an impact. In Plainfield School District, there are about 700 teachers and support staff union members who live within the boundaries so their vote could swing toward a union's endorsement.

Then, there's the question of what happens if union-endorsed candidates get on the board and have to make decisions about the folks who helped them get elected.

We turned to the educational and political experts for their view on this national debate.

Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute, http://www.epi.org/ , and a former national education columnist for The New York Times.

"In my view, this is a much broader issue than teachers and school boards. We have a generally corrupt political system in which campaign contributions from interested parties are routinely made to public officials who make decisions affecting the contributors. How is the situation you describe different from a defense contractor making a contribution to a congressman or senator who will vote on new weapons systems? In such cases, they all claim, with a straight face, that there was no quid pro quo.

"I don't see how you can prohibit teachers unions from contributing to school board candidates when this larger corruption infects the entire political system. And are teachers any different from those who might contribute to school board candidates because they want to keep their own property taxes low, and so they contribute to candidates who might favor a tougher line on teachers' salaries?

"I fully agree with you that the situation you describe is problematic, but I think it is mistaken to single out your teachers' union here. Until we take all such money out of politics, there is no basis for singling out the teachers' union. I have never heard of a local school district that adopted a public financing policy, but it would be worth considering.

However, even if you have public financing, that would not prevent teachers' unions from spending their own money to run their own independent campaigns for or against candidates. And the same is true of a taxpayers group."

Paul Peterson is the Henry Lee Shattuck professor of government and director of the program on education policy and governance at Harvard University; a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University; and editor-in-chief of Education Next, a journal of opinion and research. Peterson is a former director of the Center for American Political Studies at Harvard University and of the governmental studies program at the Brookings Institution. Website: http://www.ksg.harvard.edu/pepg/

"It is not so much a matter of whether or not unions can give as whether or not candidates may receive a contribution from a party with which they will be negotiating directly upon election. If a candidate makes explicit promises, it is probably a violation of the law. If the candidate does not, the practice is dubious, bordering on the unethical, but it is probably not a violation of the law.

"This issue comes up in well-known political corruption cases. Can candidates for public office receive money from organizations with whom they will be in direct negotiation if elected for public office? I believe the former governor of Illinois was prosecuted for allegedly accepting gifts from individuals who had a stake in decisions the governor made. I think it was necessary to prove that a quid pro quo was agreed upon, at least implicitly.

"A city council member in Boston was recently convicted for accepting money in return for assisting with securing that person a liquor license.

"In the case you describe, it is probably more the appearance of an ethical impropriety than an outright violation of the law, unless the candidates for office have promised support for union demands during the negotiations in exchange for receiving financial support.

"The stated motives of the donor would not seem to be relevant, as they may mask another motivation. But even though the practice strikes me as dubious, it is probably not a violation of the law."

Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, oversees the organization's research projects and publications. He contributes to the Flypaper blog and weekly Education Gadfly newsletter. He is also a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and executive editor of Education Next http://educationnext.org/author/mpetrilli/
Previously, Petrilli was an associate assistant deputy secretary in the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Innovation and Improvement.

"No, I've never heard from candidates abstaining from a vote on the contract. In many places, there might NEVER BE A VOTE if all of the endorsed candidates abstained, because everyone is endorsed by the union! I certainly think the union has the right to take action like this, and parents are right to raise questions, too. But I don't think there's any legal or ethical code that would require a board member to abstain. The parents might want to run their own slate next time!" Petrilli said.


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2 Comments

Peterson said it best "....the practice is dubious, bordering on the unethical, but it is probably not a violation of the law."

And for this reason alone is reason enough for me NOT to vote for any of these three candidates.

When teacher and public employee unions realized they had the power to use union dues to buy politicians, we were doomed.
The public employee unions have literally destroyed New York State and California, and they are working on the rest of the country.
I'm a school board member in New York State. In NYS small city school board members are exempt from conflict of interest. This means teacher unions can and DO elect teacher spouses and family members to school boards, and then negotiate contracts for their own family members and ultimately, themselves.
This is corruption on a level that is so fundamental and so wrong, it makes me sick every time I think about it.

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Catherine Ann Velasco


Catherine Ann Velasco has covered education and children and family issues for The Herald-News since 1997. She keeps an eye on schools in Will and Grundy counties. Her best stories always come from readers’ tips or public comment during a board meeting. So if there’s some good news or bad news at your school – she’d like to know. Join the conversation about the twists and turns and surprises that pop up on her beat. And, find some extra news that she just can’t wait to tell you.

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This page contains a single entry by Cathy Velasco published on March 28, 2011 8:53 PM.

To endorse or not to endorse - that's the question was the previous entry in this blog.

Here's what you think about union endorsements is the next entry in this blog.

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