Report claims NJEA weaves ‘spider web of political power’
By Carly Sitrin
01/06/2020 05:05 AM EST
A new report (https://sunlightpolicynj.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/SPCNJ-Issue-Paper-8-Network-of-Allies-FINAL-georgia-font.pdf) seeking to map the influence of the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest and most powerful teachers union, claims to have uncovered what its author calls “a veritable spider web of political power and influence.”
Mike Lilley, an outspoken and longtime opponent of the NJEA, said he spent months referencing publicly available financial data and found, between 2009 to 2016, the NJEA spent over $33 million supporting dozens of nonprofits and political action committees.
Lilley has begun his own self-funded organization called the Sunlight Policy Center with a stated mission of exposing the state’s “rigged and special-interest-dominated political system.” Much of his work has focused on the NJEA.
“I don’t think people are aware of this,” Lilley told POLITICO. “When you are trying to get a bill passed or influence a politician or leader … if they’ve got 10 different groups coming at them from every angle, it has cumulatively a greater impact.”
The NJEA, which has more than 200,000 members, is consistently one of the biggest political spenders in the state and often finds itself in the middle of New Jersey’s most divisive political battles.
The NJEA spent years and millions of dollars in an unsuccessful bid to oust Senate President Steve Sweeney after he refused to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot to require regular payments into New Jersey’s deeply underfunded public worker pension system. The union has also forged a close alliance with Gov. Phil Murphy, a Sweeney rival, and has contributed significantly to a political organization with ties to Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin
Lilley’s report draws monetary and policy interest connections between the NJEA and left-leaning academic and advocacy groups, including New Jersey Policy Perspective, BlueWaveNJ, the Education Law Center, Working Family Alliance, the Latino Action Network, New Jersey Citizen Action and more than 40 others.
Lilley’s report also draws direct lines from those groups to Murphy’s policy platform and issues he’s pushed, such as eliminating the controversial PARCC test, slowing charter school growth and his various political appointments.
Lilley previously uncovered an NJEA donation of $2.5 million to New Direction New Jersey, a “dark money” organization with close ties to Murphy. The NJEA‘s support of New Direction has swelled to at least $4.5 million. It also gave another $2.75 million to NJ United, a group with close ties to Coughlin.
Lilley said he knows that not every group in the report is “doing the bidding of the NJEA.” Some, he said, simply have shared interests.
Lilley is a former executive director of Better Education for Kids, a group co-founded in 2011 by conservative hedge funder David Tepper and philanthropist Alan Fournier that has advocated for policies that the NJEA has spent millions fighting, including teacher evaluations based on student test scores and school voucher-like programs. Lilley also worked for the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, where he also wrote a series of papers on the NJEA.
He said he is personally funding his organization, which is organized as 501(c)(3) nonprofit and has not accepted donations or engaged in political advocacy.
The NJEA declined to comment in detail on the report, with spokesperson Steven Baker calling Lilley’s past research “anti-union propaganda“ and saying the union sees no benefit in “engaging with his misleading, agenda-driven ‘reports.‘”
The NJEA has defended its political involvement in the past as a necessary component of its work to protect the interests of members.
“Face it, every decision—from pensions and privatization, to salaries and benefits—is a decision made by people who hold public office. The only way to influence these decisions is to elect candidates who support our public schools and you, our public school employees,” the NJEA’s political action committee website says. “One of the best ways to make sure we elect the right candidates is to give them the financial support they need to win.”
Read the full NJEA report here <https://subscriber.politicopro.com/f/?id=0000016f-7723-d64c-a9ff-f73b704b0000>.