Union Report: #RedForEd, Read Across America and ‘Inoculation’ Projects — How the NEA Media Fund Influences Public Opinion
Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears most Wednesdays; see the full archive.
Each year, members of the National Education Association contribute $8 of their dues money to the union’s media fund. NEA spends most of it on national public relations campaigns and the rest is doled out in the form of grants to state affiliates that apply for them.
The union produces an annual report informing the delegates to its national convention how the funds were dispensed.
This school year, NEA awarded grants totaling almost $1.2 million to seven affiliates, in Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota and Rhode Island. Five state affiliates were turned down.
Additionally, NEA lent communications staff to support affiliates in Louisiana and Florida. “Consultants, working hand-in-hand with NEA and affiliate staff, provide strategic guidance and add general communications capacity through media and digital support,” reads the media fund report.
But I want to draw your attention to the specific campaigns of the national union. Their general purpose is “to advance the cause of public education and publicize the role of the association and its affiliates in improving the quality of public education.” In 2004 the union used the entire contents of the fund — $4 million — to create a front group called Communities for Quality Education that ran ads against the No Child Left Behind Act, largely without revealing its union origins and funding.
This year, NEA’s communications department promoted the #RedForEd brand, encouraging teachers to wear red on specific days to coincide with rallies or other special events. The media fund report states that “these efforts garnered attention, web traffic and energy to help support and encourage actions in support of our members advocating for more resources for their students, increased educator pay and to ensure our schools are staffed with the professionals our students need.”
The union was particularly proud of its outreach to the education press. “National media funds supported prominent positioning for NEA in May at the 2019 Education Writers Association conference, the largest annual gathering of journalists on the education beat,” reads NEA’s report. “This year’s conference featured NEA leaders and members who led a discussion of the future of education unions in a post-Janus world and teacher activism in the #RedForEd movement.”
NEA lauded its partnership with Washington, D.C.-based community group ParentsTogether “to engage parents to sign petitions and contact leaders on a wide range of NEA priorities, and also to help us expand our digital capabilities.”
Not all of NEA’s communications work is positive promotion. The union launched what it calls an “inoculation project” in Ohio “that will educate opinion leaders, the public and members on the real values behind the organizations running public campaigns to discredit the union.”
Finally, there is NEA’s largest and longest-lasting public relations campaign, Read Across America. Launched in 1998 to coincide with the birthday of Dr. Seuss, the program has not only promoted early childhood reading but also has introduced NEA to a wide range of politicians, celebrities and activists who participate.
The Read Across America Cat in the Hat logo was mostly absent from the union’s activities in 2019. NEA had a licensing agreement with Seuss’s estate to use the logo royalty-free, but it came with a long list of restrictions, almost all of which were violated in this Tennessee Education Association promotional poster.
In recent years, the Seuss connection has become problematic. Seuss drew racist images in his early work, some of it in the service of World War II propaganda. Some researchers also detect racist undertones in Seuss’s most popular books. These issues were brought to NEA’s attention, causing the union to rebrand the Read Across America event to focus on diverse authors.
I don’t know which of those two is more troublesome for NEA: the sexual offender or the producer of a film that “demonizes public education, teachers unions, and unfortunately, teachers.”
Maybe NEA needs a media fund to shore up the image of its media fund.
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