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It’s a familiar scene:

United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew taking the podium on the steps of City Hall to decry school closures or toxic school buildings while parents and activists from grassroots groups like New York Communities for Change are waving signs behind him.

Or crowding into offices in Albany to lobby legislators to vote their way on the budget.

 what do teachers unions do
Families from the nonprofit New York Communities for Change stand behind teachers union president Michael Mulgrew at a press conference to criticize how the DOE has responded to the threat of toxins in schools. (Photo courtesy GothamSchools)

Or marching against larger societal problems like income inequality during the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Teachers unions are not only generous to their members and politicians, they also give to outside groups whose political views and activities mesh with their own. Last year, the United Federation of Teachers gave $1.4 million in grants and contributions to groups including Planned Parenthood, the anti-standardized testing group Fairtest, and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum. New York State United Teachers gave nearly $760,000 to the American Cancer Society, Empire State Pride Agenda and the New York Immigration Coalition, among others.

Some of the biggest beneficiaries are two grassroots organizing groups who receive hundreds of thousands a year from the unions and who often show up arm-and-arm with the state and city unions at protests, Lobby Day, and other political events: New York Communities for Change and the Alliance for Quality Education.

(The groups are not listed under the grants and contributions category on the unions’ federal filings, but under representational activities in the case of Communities for Change and under political activities and lobbying in the case of the Alliance.)

The connection with groups who represent parent voices gives the union an important edge in its political fights. “In the same way that business groups form coalitions among like-minded organizations, we’ve done the same thing,” said NYSUT spokesperson Carl Korn.

Critics often charge that teachers unions are special interests that care only about job protections for teachers, not about the welfare of students. By allying with and giving support to groups whose mission is to represent the interests of children and families, the union broadens the reach and appeal of its own mission—and vice versa for the groups it partners with.

“The UFT spends a lot of time working with parents and communities across New York,” said Mulgrew. “We maintain relationships with parents, elected officials, communities and grassroots organizations to prevent Bloomberg from instituting the failed educational policies of the reform movement that have harmed districts across the country.”

The strategy seems to be working. A January poll this year by Quinnipiac University found that 53 percent of New York City voters trust the teachers’ union more than Mayor Michael Bloomberg to protect the interests of public school students, versus 35 percent who trust Bloomberg more. (In the same poll, most parents of schoolchildren said they approved of Bloomberg’s appointee, New York City Chancellor Dennis Walcott, 51 to 34 percent.)

In 2011, NYSUT’s contribution of $425,000 was about 54 percent of the Alliance for Quality Education’s budget of $783,000. Last year, NYSUT’s contribution dropped to $317,000, out of the Alliance’s $634,000 total budget.

The uptick in 2011 was due to the “threat of the issues around budget cuts, revenue questions, and the property tax cap,” said Alliance director Billy Easton. “There were a lot of things happening that were shared priorities, and we were launching a higher level of collaboration than we had before.”

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In 2010, New York Communities for Change, which works on a variety of issues like housing and environment for low-income families, not just education, received a UFT contribution of more than $200,000. It reported a budget of $1.2 million in tax filings for 2010, the most recent records available. The UFT has increased its payments to more than $350,000 each of the past two years.

Union officials say Communities for Change uses the money primarily for organizing daycare workers, who recently joined the union. But the UFT’s backing of the group goes beyond a fee-for-service relationship. Communities for Change often organizes around issues that align with the city union’s political platform, and appears with them at events or in the same political coalitions.

“An organization devoted to giving voice to the voiceless…that’s an organization that the union will always support,” said Mulgrew.

“The communities around our schools are in a great deal of distress as income inequality keep growing,” he added. “It would be reprehensible if we weren’t standing with them trying to make those communities better because those are the children that we teach.”

One of the more visible instances of the partnership between the state union and the Alliance for Quality Education is Lobby Day. This year for the event, the two groups joined in signing a shared statement of principles—primarily focused on increasing funding for schools—that was also signed by other groups including the state chapters of the NAACP and League of Women Voters, along with local unions, superintendents and school boards.

Both the unions and the groups say that they also often act independently of each other—and occasionally at odds—regardless of the financial support.

“We’re a separate organization that works in conjunction with NYSUT on a number of issues, not on every issue. We have areas of different priorities that exist,” said Easton, the Alliance’s director. For instance, he said the group supports longer school days and school years—not exactly a union talking point.

“They’re an independent group. If anybody has watched AQE over the years there should be no question about their independence,” said Korn when asked if the union expects anything in return for their investment.

“A clear analogy is that we’re singing in the same chorus, often in the same songbook, but not necessarily to the tune,” he added. “AQE’s focus is on high-need school districts and the state’s failure to fund districts there. We work to increase funding for every district, even more affluent districts.”

Communities for Change did not respond to repeated requests for comment about its relationship with the UFT. The group was formed after the controversial grassroots organization ACORN was disbanded three years ago. Previously, the UFT had given grants for as much as half a million dollars to ACORN, which began the work organizing daycare workers. Communities for Change has continued the work of its predecessor.

The group also occasionally strikes off on its own. At one protest led by Communities for Change last year against the proposed co-location of a charter school in the building of a district-run secondary school in Harlem, one education activist who attended, Noah Gotbaum, made a point of distancing the event from the union:

“This is not a union rally. This is not a special interest rally. This is a parent and community rally,” he said at the time.

The UFT doesn’t always use grassroots groups to build bridges with communities. It also has an in-house parent and community outreach director, Anthony Harmon, whose staff leads parent training sessions, works with religious leaders, and facilitates teacher volunteerism. “We have a rather large network of parents, community groups, faith-based groups, all of that,” Mulgrew said, adding that other teachers unions have expressed interest in having Harmon advise them about how to build similar relationships.

The unions are not alone in their investment in grassroots organizing. Groups like StudentsFirst and Democrats for Education Reform, which often oppose teachers unions, have also pushed hard to reach parents and enlist their support on issues such as charter schools and school closings.

“We put a tremendous amount of time, energy and resources into our organizing efforts,” said Tenicka Boyd, director of organizing for StudentsFirstNY. “A lot of what has been articulated has been teacher voice, principal voice….governor and city officials, and mayoral candidates. It’s so important to have an authentic parent voice represented.”

“Parents across the city are not a monolithic group,” she added. “I think it’s so important to have all sides of the debate.”

Although the unions must disclose the details of how they spend their money to the federal government, nonprofit advocacy groups like Democrats for Education Reform and StudentsFirst do not have to publicize many details about how they allocate their resources beyond their overall budget, so it’s unclear how much money they spend on grassroots organizing. Another difference is that although parents can join StudentsFirst, parents can’t join a union—thus the unions must create alliances with outside organizations in order to reach them.

The Alliance for Quality Education says it’s happy to play that role.

“We need all the allies we can get,” Easton said. “The vast majority of teachers are teaching because they want kids to learn, and that’s a common ground agenda. And that’s at the core of why it makes sense for us to work together.”

Note: In 2012, the UFT gave Planned Parenthood $125,000, Fairtest $5,000 and the Brooklyn Children’s Museum $10,000. In 2012, NYSUT gave the American Cancer Society $26,920, Empire State Pride Agenda $5,000 and the New York Immigration Coalition $10,000.

Geoff Decker contributed reporting.

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