(Courtesy of The Detroit Free Press)
Teachers’ unions and some other education-related groups in Michigan have increased their spending to lobby state officials in 2011, largely in response to sweeping changes in school policy and budget cuts adopted by the Republican-led state Legislature.
The Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, reported lobbying expenses of $324,197 for the first seven months of the year, according to state records. The Michigan chapter of the American Federation of Teachers reported expenses of $119,748. That’s a combined increase of about 11% compared with the same period in 2010.
The unions have opposed much of the education-related legislation passed by the Legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder so far this year. The changes include making teacher performance the key factor in awarding tenure and deciding layoffs rather than seniority, a law that gives state-appointed emergency managers for school districts and cities more power, and education funding cuts adopted as part of the budget year that began Oct. 1.
Bills pending in the Legislature that would allow the expansion of charter schools and make other educational options available to families in Michigan also have attracted a lot of attention from lobbyists.
The lobbying disclosure is meant to report the amount of money spent interacting directly with lawmakers and other government officials. The total includes spending on lobbyist salaries and other costs.
Teachers unions did not increase lobbying staff assigned to work in Lansing, but they have been more active in trying to communicate with lawmakers and other decision-makers at the state Capitol.
“More of our members have been coming to town to make their voices heard,” said Doug Pratt, an MEA spokesman. “There’s been a laundry list of issues that certainly contributed.”
Unions have disagreed with many of the proposals passed by Republicans this year, saying they’re an attack on collective bargaining rights, middle-class workers and the state’s public education system. Union leaders say they feel obligated to make their case to Lansing lawmakers, even if that lobbying has not paid off in legislative victories.
Union leaders say their lobbying has made some bills better than first introduced and could pay dividends down the road through a better understanding of issues with lawmakers.
“It’s essentially important — win, lose or draw on a legislative issue — that everybody hears our side of why we believe what we believe,” said David Hecker, president of AFT Michigan. “One way of doing that is lobbying. You educate people on an issue.”
Michigan’s sweeping education changes have attracted attention from groups lobbying in the state for the first time. StudentsFirst, a national education group that supports eliminating or reducing the significance of teacher tenure and other reforms, reported lobbying expenditures of $951,018 for the first seven months of 2011 — by far the most of any group. But 95% of that amount was for television and other advertising that likely did not have to be reported to the state as a lobbying expense.
Many other groups don’t report those types of expenses as lobbying. StudentsFirst has said it reported the advertising spending “in the interest of full disclosure and the spirit of Michigan law.”
Public schools, including intermediate school districts, reported at least $165,500 in lobbying expenses for the first part of 2011. The biggest change came from the Detroit Public Schools district, which is under the authority of an emergency manager and was seeking changes to state law related to the managers’ authority in areas including academics. The Detroit district reported $61,370 in lobbying expenses for the first seven months of 2011, compared with $33,930 for all of 2010.
Detroit schools spokesman Steven Wasko said in an email there “were a number of legislative issues at the time,” including the emergency manager law, “that affected DPS’ work and ability to best educate the schoolchildren under its mission.”
Michigan’s 15 public universities reported more than $362,000 in lobbying expenses for the first part of 2011, up nearly 11% for the same period in 2010. Universities had multiple issues at stake in the Legislature, including a state aid cut of 15%.
The increased attention from education lobbyists appears to be an expected reaction based on what’s happened at the Capitol so far in 2011.
“I’m not necessarily surprised to see them increasing their activity, considering the focus on education reform this year,” said Ari Adler, a spokesman for Michigan House Republicans.
Rich Robinson, leader of the nonprofit Michigan Campaign Finance Network, wants tougher and more transparent lobbyist reporting laws in the state. But Robinson also is unsurprised that education groups reported higher lobbying expenses.
“When you’re in the pressure cooker, I suppose you better elevate your game,” Robinson said.