By Ben DeGrow

(NOTE: Ben will be writing a semi-regular column here at Colorado Peak Politics on education politics. As one of the pre-eminent education experts in Colorado we are pleased to offer our readers the chance to hear from the best.)

Ben DeGrow is senior policy analyst for the Independence Institute, with a focus on education, union and school finance issues:  

He also keeps his own blog: Mount Virtus


I can’t imagine anyone (at least anyone not waiting for Santa to come) could be more ready for the end-of-the-year winter holiday break to come than the folks in the Colorado Education Association (CEA) headquarters, catty-corner from the State Capitol. Not because school is out. They’re not working in schools. But because they’re hoping for the media scrutiny to die down. It’s one Christmas wish that may not come true.

Last week was a killer. Thanks to our help at the Independence Institute, the last few days running up to the annual $39 Every Member Option political refund deadline brings a frantic rush of teachers requesting a small amount of their dues money back. Many of them make the request on an online form we point them to (not so easy to find from the CEA’s main page, if you even know to look for it).  

This year the stress may have been a bit more intense. On the morning of December 15—refund deadline day—the entire CEA website conveniently went down for awhile. Not long after a couple phone calls were made to the CEA office, the site came back up. Teachers who missed their refund for this reason should call 303-837-1500, or drop an email to the appropriate staff member.  

The very same day, CEA leaders achieved a Pyrrhic victory when the Legislative Legal Services Committee stamped out a State Board of Education rule requiring school districts to notify parents when a teacher has been charged with a crime. Peak Politics is right that the union and its allies can find no reasonable way to excuse the action as “for the kids.”  

Committee chair and deciding vote Senator John Morse (D-Colorado Springs) eked out a second legislative term in 2010 over Republican challenger Owen Hill by a mere 340 votes, a one percent margin. CEA and local affiliates combined to give $7,550 directly to Morse’s re-election campaign, but that’s just a drop in the bucket. The Colorado Statesman reported in 2010 that Left-leaning 527 groups registered under the name of Julie Wells – including Accountability for Colorado, 21st Century Colorado and The Neighborhood Project –spent $715,281 on TV ads, mailers and door-to-door canvassing, either supporting Morse or opposing Hill.” CEA reported giving more than $600,000 combined to these three shadowy political attack dog groups last year.  

Since 2004, CEA and local affiliates have reported a total of nearly $4.7 million in expenditures to 527 groups, parties and partisan candidates. A full 99 percent of that amount has benefited Democrats. Despite regular protestations from CEA machinery that their candidate endorsement process is “bipartisan,” their campaign giving cannot possibly line up with the political affiliations of their membership. While some union members support the CEA’s political agenda, and even may be glad to support it with some of their hard-earned money, almost none of this money was raised from individuals voluntarily. Unless you are the CEA and consider the annual refund option with a couple token notices on the inside pages of the union magazine to be “voluntary.”

If you’re not a CEA member education employee or closely related to one, you might have been wondering why you should care, since it’s not your money being used this way (even though the overwhelming majority of these funds are collected through government payroll systems). Then on Sunday, the third shoe dropped. A front-page piece in the Denver Post by Karen Crummy found that taxpayer funds have underwritten union activities in Colorado’s 20 largest school districts to the tune of at least $5.8 million over the past five years. For years the Independence Institute has highlighted the issue of negotiated agreements authorizing union presidents to take extended leave from the classroom and other teachers to be released to attend union meetings or lobby at the State Capitol — with tax funds paying salaries, benefits and substitutes for them to do so.  

To top it all off, highlighting the misplaced union priorities in our K-12 system, record-keeping and other accountability for the use of union release time is largely poor. Crummy’s article points out the “appalling” problem nearly two years after I raised it in an Independence Institute issue paper. So what did union officials have the audacity to tell the Post?  

"This impacts student achievement. People don't understand the value of our role in helping the district function," said Beverly Ingle, president of the Colorado Education Association.

Ri-i-i-i-ight. Funny then that in the same story a local CEA official (in the only one of the state’s 20 largest districts where the Post couldn’t find taxpayers underwriting union activities) is quoted saying “The way we look at it is, 'Why would the district pay us not to be in the classroom?’” Every time now that K-12 budget cuts come up, wouldn’t it be nice to see a group of taxpayers there insisting tax-funded union leave privileges should be right at the top of the list?  

Clearly, the CEA media spin machine is spinning its wheels now, and probably are taking solace in the relative media silence that accompanies the Yuletide season. Yet while union officials are trying to catch a sigh, I have a feeling the unwanted limelight will continue well into 2012.