Partners with Teachers Unions to Oppose Tax Limits and Education Reforms
By B. Jason Brooks
League of Women Voters Legislative Director Barbara Bartoletti and New York State United Teachers President Dick Iannuzzi see eye-to-eye on opposing tax caps and school reforms.
The League of Women Voters (LWV) of New York State, typically through its Legislative Director Barbara Bartoletti, is a frequent contact for media seeking “independent” commentary on a range of state government issues. While the League’s traditional annual call for greater transparency and ethics reform in the state legislature is usually spot-on, the League’s commentary beyond these issues can hardly be construed as an independent voice or as part of any unbiased voter-education effort, often wading into waters murky with conflicts of interest.
An analysis of the most recent public financial reports available form the U.S. Department of Labor, for example, shows that the powerful New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) union makes annual contributions to the League of Women Voters of New York State. Given this financially dependent relationship and NYSUT’s fervent opposition to school choice and property tax limits, it’s no surprise that the League then takes nearly identical positions to the teachers union on these key education reform issues. Smacking of further hypocrisy, despite the League’s continual push for more transparency from those involved in government, the League’s own website fails to disclose any of its sources of revenue, including donations coming from the teachers union and other lobbyists with vested interests before the state legislature.
While the League’s lack of independence from other prominent lobby groups and apparent unwillingness reveal its biases may be surprising to many, it isn’t new. Over the past quarter century, a distinct pattern has emerged of the League taking-up the teachers union’s positions on key education-reform policy issues. NYSUT and the League both have pushed for increased education funding without any increase in accountability for how the funds are used. Both have fought attempts to limit government spending on local public education. And rather than focusing on the right of every student to receive a high-quality education, the League adopted the teachers union’s position of fighting against school choice proposals that would emancipate the state’s neediest students from failing schools.
Property Tax Caps and Education Funding
New York has among the highest property taxes in the nation, a problem dramatically targeted by the state’s new democrat governor, Andrew Cuomo, throughout his campaign for office. NYSUT and the League of Women voters have consistently maintained positions against property tax caps, however, citing the forced restraint it would put on school district spending.
Following the newly-elected governor’s first State of the State speech this month, NYSUT president Dick Iannuzzi said: “There are many ill-conceived property tax cap proposals being promoted and we are clearly opposed to them.” The League holds the same position, with its testimony to the state legislature in 2009 stating: “We recognize that there is a visceral appeal to tax caps as a means of appeasing vociferous constituents. The idea of using the cap to slow down school spending, however, is a dangerous one…”
The teachers unions and the League both have focused on pushing more funding for New York’s school system, already the most expensive in the nation. Both supported a New York City-based lawsuit that sought solely to increase state education funding by billions of dollars, excluding any call for increased academic results in return. And both continue to oppose a property tax cap.
Education Tax Credits
A variety of bills have been introduced in New York to make private school tuition, tutoring, test preparation courses, and other education-related expenses more affordable by allowing families to deduct a portion of such expenses payments from their income taxes. By tying tax relief to prior expenditure on educational programs, the state can be assured that every cent of public money allocated here has gone directly to aid the learning of children. Yet, each time these proposals are introduced, the League of Women Voters and the state’s teachers unions once again join together in opposition.
New York’s teachers unions have a long history of opposing education tax credits. In 1982, the New York City teachers union president Al Shanker’s New York Times opinion article included, “Get ready for a fight against tuition tax credits… Nothing could be more dangerous…There can be no doubt that tax credits will mean more and more students in nonpublic schools.” And a 2003 NYSUT report includes “Bills have been introduced in the New York State legislature to establish education tax credits and tax deductions. Through NYSUT’s efforts, these bills have never been acted on.”
Dating back to at least 1985, the League of Women Voters has stood with the teachers unions on this issue. That year, an education tax credit bill was introduced, and the League urged opposition to it stating that the policy could “erode the amount of money available for the traditional support of the public schools.” Of course, the League failed to note that reimbursing parents for out-of-pocket education expenses isn’t tied to state spending on public schools.
The League and NYSUT again fought together against a similar education tax credit bill proposed in 2006. According to the League, it “opposed this measure and it was deleted from the final budget.”
Publicly-Funded Tuition Scholarships
Publicly funded school-choice scholarships gained national recognition upon the citywide implementation of them in Milwaukee in 1990. Since then, this bold reform – where the government provides parents with a portable lump-sum amount of education aid that can be redeemed at a school of the parents’ and students’ choice – has spread and taken hold in places such as Washington, D.C. and Florida. And a U.S. Supreme Court case in 2002 on a Cleveland program upheld the constitutionality of allowing parents empowered with government-funded scholarships to choose their children’s schools.
For as long as these innovative education reform programs have been around, however, the League of Women Voters and NYSUT have opposed them. Even scholarship programs targeted to low-income students, or to students trapped in failing schools, or to students with special needs have come under attack.
A 1997 story on the teachers union’s website notes “NYSUT vigorously opposes the use of public funds for vouchers” and a 2003 position paper notes “Public education is under increasing attack.” The League of Women Voters again has aligned itself with the teacher unions to register similar opposition. In 1991, the state Board of Regents considered a proposal that would have provided 5,000 provide publicly-funded scholarships valued at $2,500 each to low-income students trapped in some of the state’s chronically failing schools. The scholarships would have provided funds to allow these students to transfer to better performing schools. But, as the League’s website notes, “the League opposed the plan and the Regents withdrew it. In the next legislative session, the issue of vouchers was again raised, and the League along with other public education supporters [like NYSUT] opposed their passage.” In 1996, the League again successfully lobbied the Board and state education commissioner to reject a similar plan.
Public Charter Schools
NYSUT and the League of Women Voters have worked to prevent school choice solely within the public-school sector, too, opposing the creation and expansion of public charter schools since their arrival in New York in 1998.
The League notes that it “lobbied vigorously against the proposed legislation” to create public charter schools. The League has continued to oppose charter schools, advocating policies to curtail charter school funding and expansion and supporting bills detrimental to these public schools. In 2006, for example, the League sought to prevent the expansion of charter schools by opposing an increase in the number of charter schools allowed to operate statewide. It is also “opposed to State provision of capital construction and renovation services and reimbursement of capital expenditures for charter schools” (facilities funding is one of the largest impediments to the creation of new charter schools). Similarly, NYSUT vigorously opposed the original Charter Schools Act and has opposed each attempt to strengthen the charter-school law and to increase their presence in New York, including launching a quarter-million-dollar ad campaign “to put an end to using public dollars to fund and create more charter schools.”
Not Independent; Not Unbiased
The League of Women Voters takes money from the state teachers union, and adopts positions against education reform initiatives identical to the union. The League’s mission statement says, in part that policy statements are issued after “thorough and impartial study. Members discuss the issues; pros and cons are researched; and everyone has an opportunity to express an opinion.” If only it were so.
The League of Women Voters should take a page from its own “good government” advocacy stance and reveal sources of funding from lobbying entities, such as the state teachers unions, with vested interests in policies commented upon by the League. Until that time, no one should buy the line that the League of Women Voters is independent or unbiased.
B. Jason Brooks is director of research at the Foundation for Education Reform & Accountability and may be followed on Twitter at @bjbrooksNY.