How is it that teachers are making gazillionaires John Fish, Bob Kraft, and Jim Davis look like cheapskates?
For those keeping score at home, teachers unions ― led by the Massachusetts Teachers Association and the National Education Association ― have bankrolled much of the campaign to pass Question 1, which would increase taxes on households making more than $1 million annually. The revenue would be designated for education and transportation.
The teachers groups account for an eye-popping $22 million of the more than $26 million raised by proponents, according to the latest state campaign filings.
Compare that with the $13.8 million opponents have generated through the business community and wealthy individuals. Six donors account for nearly half of their money: Davis, chairman of New Balance, has contributed $2 million, as have Paul and Sandy Edgerley, the power couple behind Back Bay private club The Quin. The $1 million-apiece donors include Suffolk Construction, owned by Fish, Rand-Whitney Containerboard, led by New England Patriots owner Kraft, and three companies controlled by Rob Hale.
Business leaders oppose Question 1 because they fear it will bring back the “Taxachusetts” label the state worked so hard to shed. They’re concerned the measure may lead to a brain drain and hurt the state’s innovation economy, with people moving to more business-friendly states.
“In a time where talent can move anywhere, especially now with so many people working remotely, we don’t want our state to be less competitive or give anyone a reason to go elsewhere,” Sandy Edgerley wrote in an e-mail.
Davis, through a spokeswoman, said he also worries about brainpower leaving the state and “along with them will go many of the philanthropic champions supporting the nonprofit communities.”
It’s hard to see the opponents closing the funding gap with so little time left before the election. The Edgerleys don’t plan to give more. Fish told me he hasn’t decided if he will open his wallet again, but he thinks too much money has already been thrown around.
“It is ludicrous that we are both spending this kind of money,” he said. “I’d rather take my million dollars and give it to health care for the homeless. ... This [fight] doesn’t help anybody. It creates a lot of emotional reaction and unnecessary conflict in our community.”
Since 2015, the Massachusetts Teachers Association has been working with a broad coalition of labor unions, community organizations, and religious groups to get the surtax on the ballot.
The MTA has coughed up $13.3 million for the so-called Fair Share Amendment, while its national counterpart, NEA, has doled out $7.2 million. Which begs the question: What do the teachers want?
MTA President Max Page tells me Question 1 has been a priority because teachers are tired of living in wealthy state that doesn’t adequately fund public education.
“We have a starkly unequal system,” said Page, who took the reins in July after having been an architecture professor at University of Massachusetts Amherst. “Our job at the MTA has been to make sure that every kid has a great public education.”
Where does the MTA get all of its money? Page proudly tells me it comes from the union dues of its 115,000 members who work in public schools and universities. He won’t say how much more the teachers are willing to spend on the ballot question, but they are prepared to go the distance. The money has been spent on TV ads, mailings, canvassing that has included knocking on nearly 800,000 doors, and 1.6 million phone calls to voters.
“We assumed that they would put up a lot of money because they have unlimited money,” Page said of opponents. “The goal was to make sure that we had sufficient funds to win this.”
If Question 1 passes, the measure could generate up to $2 billion a year for education and transportation by adding a 4 percent surtax on incomes over $1 million. But with the teachers contributing most of the campaign money, you can’t help but wonder if fixing the MBTA and other infrastructure will get shortchanged.
On that subject, Page said: “We’re a union that’s committed to the common good, and that includes our core mission of outstanding public education pre-K through higher ed, but it also includes roads and bridges.”
I posed the same question to state Senator Lydia Edwards, who spoke at a rally last week with transit riders and workers in support of Question 1. Edwards said law makers haven’t decided how they might divvy up the extra revenue if the measure passes, but it’s unlikely to be split evenly between schools and transportation.
“I don’t know that it’s just going to be a set amount that goes out to everybody, 50-50, no matter what because that’s not how our lives are. We don’t have 50-50 troubles,” said Edwards. “A lot of it’s going to be dependent on the urgency of the moment and making sure that we’re meeting that particular moment.”
My two cents on these many millions: With two kids in public schools, of course I want them to have more resources, but mommy also needs a better commute on the Red Line. Even though the teachers unions have made the investment in the “vote yes” campaign, that shouldn’t mean transportation takes a back seat.
In many ways, the so-called millionaires tax is a reprise of a 2016 ballot question to expand public charter schools — one that pitted the business community against teachers. Business leaders were pushing for passage and raised $26.1 million, much of which came from out of state, according to a campaign filing analysis. The opponents, led by public school teachers, put up $15.4 million. The charter school measure failed.
We learned last time having more money doesn’t always guarantee a victory but combine that with the force of 115,000 voting teachers, the business leaders who want to defeat Question 1 have their work cut out for them.
If Question 1 passes, teachers no doubt will want a return on their investment. What will that be?
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.