NEW YORK, Jan. 25 (UPI) -- The National Education Association, with 2.6 million members, is the nation's largest union and one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington.
One of every 12 delegates to the 2000 Democratic National Convention was a member. In fact, the NEA member contingent of 350 was larger than the entire California delegation.
Any way one looks at it, that number represents real political clout. In fact, it has so much clout that William McGurn of The Wall Street Journal contends, "Those of us who have long dismissed the National Education Association as a tool of the Democratic Party have been badly mistaken. Apparently it's just the opposite ... it's the Democratic Party that is the tool of the NEA."
Recent reports from the Landmark Legal Foundation, a conservative legal organization, suggest that this high-powered association is clearly in alliance with the Democratic Party and may have overstepped the bounds of propriety with its partisan use of tax-exempt money.
The Federal Election Commission has been investigating allegations that the NEA spent funds to benefit Democratic candidates directly, a clear violation of campaign finance laws that prohibit candidates and political parties from coordinating their activities with outside groups.
Democratic Party documents show that an organization called the "National Coordinated Campaign Steering Committee," which included NEA representatives, set national and statewide campaign strategy for Democratic candidates and coordinated spending on their behalf.
While the NEA tilt to the Democratic Party has long been recognized and -- I should hastily note -- there is nothing wrong with that bias, the tax-exempt status enjoyed by the teachers' union comes with government rules on how union dues can be spent.
Operating funds intended to influence the outcome of an election must be disclosed. From 1994 to 1996, the NEA listed zero dollars for political activity on its tax forms.
Should it be determined that the NEA was in violation of tax law, the organization's political influence will be significantly impaired and, it should be noted, union members can recover the portion of dues used for political purposes.
Another media report says: "tens of millions of dollars in workers' dues were spent on activities designed to defeat Republicans or elect labor-friendly Democrats in 1996."
Within the Democratic Party, NEA funding and membership gave the teachers' union veto power over party strategies. It is therefore hardly surprising that the party was vehemently opposed to education vouchers or any other parental choice mechanism that challenged the union's hegemony.
Will the NEA tax-exempt status be revoked? Despite all of the evidence that may support this outcome, I doubt that will happen even with a Republican in the White House. The NEA political muscle does not end on one side of the Congressional aisle.
What the NEA's power does suggest is that any genuine educational reform faces formidable opposition from the Democratic Party. In an unusually candid moment former NEA national President Bob Chase noted in a 1999 keynote address, "For Congress, we supported pro-public education stalwarts on the Democratic Party, the folks who have helped Bill Clinton become the best 'education president' in history."
This comment was made as basic skills scores for students in urban schools continued to plummet. It was a statement that defied the relatively poor performance of American students on international tests compared to their counterparts in foreign nations.
But Chase was speaking not to students, parents or even teachers in his union; he was speaking to Democratic Party leaders -- his colleagues in a political alliance. All they wanted to hear is that the NEA can be counted on as a stalwart of Democratic Party politics.
Herb London is president of The Hudson Institute (www.hudson.org), a nonpartisan think-tank based in Indianapolis, and the John M. Olin Professor of Humanities at New York University. Readers may write him at The Hudson Institute, 5395 Emerson Way, Indianapolis, Ind., 46226.
"Outside View" commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in a variety of important global issues.