The congressman openly sought assistance from the country’s largest teachers’ unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), in developing the "No Child Left Behind" Act in 2001. He asked for their guidance on improving failing schools and utilized their research on professional development programs for teachers. The congressman also sought their help in defining the terms "highly qualified" teachers and "scientifically based" research, which were important considerations in the reauthorization of the federal law on K-12 education.

According to a congressional aide, the unions’ influence was valued because of their expertise and knowledge about the education system. Interviews with experts and policymakers revealed that many members of Congress turned to the NEA and AFT for advice when drafting the legislation. However, it was noted that only a few actually followed their recommendations this time.

It was also observed that there was a widespread perception that the unions were resistant to change or unwilling to offer meaningful alternatives. One Democratic aide stated that although Americans were demanding education reform, both the White House and Congress were determined to deliver regardless of the unions’ involvement.

As a result, there are few indications of the unions’ influence in the revised Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which was championed by President Bush and passed with bipartisan support. Despite being a significant force in shaping education policy, the unions had only a few victories and many losses in relation to this important federal legislation. They did not formally endorse the measure, despite making polite statements praising certain aspects of it. Now, the unions must rely on the states to implement the law according to their preferences.

According to Jack Jennings, a former education aide and director of a research group, the unions and the teachers they represent experienced a major defeat with the legislation. He noted that while the unions hold significant power in elementary and secondary education, the current climate demands more accountability, which clashed with their interests.

The reauthorized Elementary and Secondary Education Act includes Title I, the flagship federal program for disadvantaged students, as well as a new accountability system for public schools. It mandates annual tests in reading and math for grades 3-8, requires progress towards academic proficiency for all students within 12 years, imposes penalties on low-performing schools, and calls for highly qualified teachers in every classroom. Additionally, the accompanying spending bill provided the largest increase in federal education aid to date.

Despite the broad support the legislation received in Congress, the unions had a relatively indifferent response. Charlotte Fraas, the legislative director of the AFT, stated that they neither overtly supported nor objected to the law and acknowledged both positive aspects and desired changes.

However, the unions had already been brainstorming strategies to influence the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act long before the actual debate began, during the Clinton administration.

Building Momentum

A lobbyist, who wishes to remain anonymous, recounted an experience with Joel Packer, a lobbyist for the National Education Association (NEA). During a legislative markup session with Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state, the lobbyist observed Packer standing behind her while her own staffer struggled to answer her technical questions. This highlights the level of expertise possessed by lobbyists like Packer.

The unions also relied on their members in state and local affiliates to help lobby lawmakers in their respective districts, advocating for their desired provisions in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). The NEA, for instance, utilized its list of 90,000 to 100,000 "cyber lobbyists" by regularly sending them emails before critical points in the negotiations, in the hope that they would communicate with their elected representatives.

Furthermore, the unions made significant contributions to candidates who supported their positions on the ESEA. During the 2000 election cycle, the NEA provided $2 million to Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore, while the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) gave $1 million. These contributions were reported to the Federal Election Commission. Additionally, the NEA’s political action committee (PAC) spent $5.1 million in 2000, making it the eighth highest-spending PAC in the country. The AFT’s PAC, on the other hand, spent $4.2 million, ranking as the twelfth highest-spending PAC. According to federal law, PAC funds can be used for federal office candidates, state and national party committees, and administrative costs.

James W. Guthrie, the director of the Peabody Center for Education Policy and a professor at Vanderbilt University, emphasized the significant influence of money in politics. He referred to it as an "elixir" that has an outsized impact.

Despite having such resources at their disposal, teachers’ union lobbyists found themselves on the defensive when it came to shaping the ESEA. The previous renewal of the law happened in 1994 and was initially slated for revision in 1999.

The reauthorization debate began in 1999 when President Clinton was in office, and the unions were optimistic that he would be an advocate for issues such as federal aid for smaller class sizes. However, the legislation was delayed and pushed back until after the 2000 elections. The unions’ prospects took a hit when George W. Bush was elected president. They suddenly found themselves at odds with the administration at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Although the AFT’s state affiliate had worked with Bush during his governorship in Texas, neither national union had endorsed him during the presidential race. Bush’s education platform, which included federally financed tuition vouchers and the "Straight A’s" plan favored by congressional Republicans, clashed with the unions’ positions. President Bush also had a different vision of accountability compared to the unions.

Counting the Scorecard

Many observers attribute the success of the unions in achieving their initial objectives: the exclusion of a voucher plan and Straight A’s from the new law. However, the law does offer a publicly funded tutoring option for students in certain underperforming schools and consolidates several federal programs into block grants. "The unions’ power in Washington lies not so much in creating, but in stopping," stated Bruce Hunter, chief lobbyist for the American Association of School Administrators. "Teachers always have one or two demands, and they get them." One Democratic Hill aide agreed that the unions alone won those debates. "That victory was effortless," the aide remarked. "Conservatives entered this bill with two main priorities – vouchers and block grants – and the NEA and AFT secured the votes necessary to prevent them." However, observers assert that the unions had the most influence in the significant increase in education funding in the ESEA’s companion budget bill. The Education Department initially received $48.9 billion in the final budget, $4.4 billion more than the president’s request. Since then, this amount has been raised to $49.9 billion during the appropriations process. "The question is, what would have happened to these issues if the NEA and AFT were not present?" questioned Arnold F. Fege, director of public engagement for the Public Education Network. "It would have been a much tougher battle to fight."

Observers, however, have conflicting opinions on the extent of the unions’ leverage. "Clearly, each group holds influence," noted Sandy Kress, Mr. Bush’s chief education adviser during the reauthorization, "but none of them controls the agenda." Others argue that the unions were excluded from significant involvement in the final stages of the No Child Left Behind law. "There were moments when certain people had an impact, but on many major issues, there was surprising consensus among the Hill," said Richard Long, a lobbyist representing the National Association of State Title I Directors and the International Reading Association. "Much of this was done with a high level of secrecy, allowing the process to move forward." The final legislation was drafted behind closed doors by the leaders of the Senate and House education committees, including Rep. John A. Boehner, Rep. George Miller, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, and Sen. Judd Gregg, as revealed by David Schnittger, spokesman for Rep. Boehner. "The process of writing, negotiating, and passing last year’s groundbreaking education bill largely took place without the involvement of the Washington lobbying community," Schnittger explained. "At the start of the process, it was recognized that for progress to be made, Republicans and Democrats needed to collaborate in a room."

The NEA, one of the two unions, faced bigger challenges due to its fundamental disagreement with the way the testing provisions were outlined in the new law. The AFT, although more satisfied with the provision, still did not see it as the ideal scenario. Union officials chose not to provide further details. However, the fact that the unions considered it a draw is noteworthy, according to Andrew J. Rotherham, the director of education policy for the Progressive Policy Institute.

According to an anonymous Democratic aide, the unions lost on some issues because they failed to propose reasonable alternatives. Instead, they mostly advocated for maintaining the status quo. Amy Wilkins, a policy analyst for Education Trust, pointed out that the new law was centered around reform, and the unions were seen as part of the system that needed to be reformed rather than advocates for children. She acknowledged that their main responsibility is to advocate for their members.

Despite setbacks at the federal level, the unions intend to continue shaping education policy at the state level where the No Child Left Behind Act will be implemented. The United Federation of Teachers aims to influence how low-performing schools are defined in New York state by highlighting specific challenges they face. For instance, they want to recognize schools that may be performing well overall but struggling with students who are non-native English speakers. The goal is to have a more comprehensive and accurate description of schools that won’t negatively affect their reputation.

The NEA plans to allocate a significant portion of its budget to help state and local affiliates understand and refine the law. They aim to document the consequences of the law, inform members of its requirements, communicate its negative aspects to the public, advocate for amendments, and support alternative approaches to high-stakes exams. The NEA believes that decisions about the law will largely be made at the state and local levels, so they want their members to be actively engaged with school boards and administrators to determine what works best.

On the other hand, the AFT has primarily focused on informing its members about the law. They believe that their members at the state and local levels are already working to influence the implementation of the law according to the union’s priorities. The California Teachers Association has established a teacher-liaison program to ensure that teachers have a say in the implementation of the law and can influence state policy.

While the unions may have faced setbacks, many believe they are resilient and capable of regrouping to push for changes in the law. Their determination to have a lasting influence on education policy cannot be underestimated.


  • rhysgraham

    Rhys Graham is an educational blogger and professor who writes about topics such as literacy, mathematics, and science. He has written several books, including one on the history of science. He is also the co-founder of the website Learn Out Loud, which helps educators create and share classroom activities.