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A charter by any other name

In 1906, the federal government issued a federal charter to the National Education Association (NEA).  This Congressional Charter was granted “for the purpose to elevate the character and advance the interests of the profession of teaching; and to promote the cause of education in the United States”. Other organizations that fall in the same category include Little League Baseball and the Girl Scouts of America. The NEA is the only labor union to hold such a charter, and they are only one of two organizations with a federal charter to have a Political Action Committee (PAC). 

The NEA charter was granted prior to any federal guidelines for charter approval, and there is an assumption that to keep this status it would now need to meet the requirements set forth in 1969, which include being, “organized and operated as a nonpartisan and nonprofit organization.” Clearly, this is not the case. Charles W. Baird wrote an extensive report on the NEA and why it no longer meets the criteria for a federal charter:

Notwithstanding that in 1906 the NEA probably met all five minimum standards, today it does not meet any of them. The NEA is not organized and operated for educational, let alone charitable or civic improvement purposes. It blocks any meaningful educational reform, and certainly does not act in the public interest. It is neither nonprofit nor nonpartisan, and it meets no national need except its own…

A 2022 report by the Government Accountability Institute titled, Teachers Unions: From Academics to Activists How Teachers Unions Reward Insiders, Promote Political Activism, and Push a Divisive Agenda, points out how partisan the NEA has become, “Teachers union leadership has benefitted from the expansion of political spending and influence. It keeps their jobs and their names relevant and leads to personal enrichment and the advancement of their own agendas…”

This week, legislation has been introduced by Senator Blackburn to repeal this charter. Similar legislation was introduced in the House by Rep. Fitzgerald in April of this year. If passed, the NEA would be stripped of its Congressional Charter. 

What would this mean for the NEA? The argument in the House bill for repealing the charter states,

The NEA can no longer be considered a public service worthy of its federal charter as it has drifted substantially from its core mission and become a massive political operation dedicated to electing Democrats and imposing a radical progressive agenda on America’s schools.

It’s a big deal for the government to repeal an endorsement, but of course, at the end of the day it comes down to money. Mr. Baird points to one example from a 1995 Forbes report of how the NEA would lose significant revenue should its charter be repealed:

While the AFT has a tax exemption for funds and income used for educational purposes, among labor unions only the NEA has a federally-granted exemption from real and personal property taxes in the District of Columbia. Forbesmagazine has estimated that this property tax exemption is worth approximately $2 million annually. That amounts to about one-half of NEA’s Political Action Committee [NEA-PAC] spending.

Forbes, February 13, 1995, p. 127

Despite their claims, the NEA does not advocate for education or for its rank and file membership, but rather its own corporate political benefit. The bottom line: a Congressional Charter should not exist for a political organization. It shouldn’t matter which side of the aisle, dues collected from professional organizations should not be a political weapon endorsed by the federal government.

Brigette Herbst

Brigette Herbst is the Senior Organizing Director of Americans for Fair Treatment, a community of current and former public-sector employees offering resources and support to exercise their First Amendment rights. Prior to joining Americans for Fair Treatment in 2018, Brigette’s career included working in the public sector for New York State, teaching elementary school, coaching high school sports, and working as a municipal county employee. This unique experience offers Brigette an inside perspective on public employee culture in New York. She focuses on educating New Yorkers about their constitutional rights with regard to union membership and promoting fair treatment of workers. Brigette has her bachelor’s degree in history and politics and her master’s degree in elementary education. In her spare time, she enjoys traveling and planning trips for her family.