May 18, 2003
First of two columns.
Ad campaigns by the Massachusetts Teachers Association have become as regular as the equinox. In recent years, radio and TV spots paid for by the state's largest teachers union have run every spring and fall, airing so frequently that the MTA has boasted to its members, "It will be nearly impossible for a member of the public, an opinion leader, or an elected official to miss our messages."
The messages in the latest round of ads were that taxes should go up and that it would be disastrous if state spending on education went down. One ad, for example, lamented that "many" of the kids at "your local high school" would not be going to college "because the governor's new budget is putting their one chance of a college education . . . out of reach." The MTA's advice? "Tell our political leaders to raise the revenues needed."
Another ad acknowledged that there is a $3 billion deficit "with painful cuts coming," but condemned the Romney administration for taking some of those cuts out of local aid. "Are you ready for massive layoffs of teachers and staff?" it asks. "Or should we tell our political leaders that . . . it's time to show some resolve and raise the revenues our kids need?"
There is a familiar sameness to many MTA commercials. The ads that ran this spring weren't all that different from the ads that ran last spring, or the spring before that. (Some of the spots, in fact, were reruns.) Governors may come and go, budgets may swell and contract, but the MTA is forever calling for higher taxes and higher spending, or ominously warning us against lower taxes and lower spending.
To be sure this sense of deja vu wasn't just my imagination, I took a stroll through the union's advertising record over the past 15 years. Some snapshots:
June 1989: The MTA launches an ad blitz to denounce proposed education cuts. One TV spot features Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. If spending on public schools doesn't rise, it suggests, Noriega will soon have more drug customers in Massachusetts.
November 1991: The MTA spends $250,000 on a series of radio ads calling for more public outlays on the state's schools. "We must spend more and spend smarter," one ad declares.
April 1995: The MTA airs a new commercial blasting legislators for proposing to spend less on education than the union had expected. Meanwhile, an MTA lobbyist urges Beacon Hill to take the money out of emergency reserves, if necessary. "This is a rainy-day fund," he says, and "it's pouring outside."
May 1996: The MTA unveils a $40,000 ad campaign advocating higher cigarette taxes. The spot accuses Gov. William Weld, who opposes higher taxes, of "siding with tobacco companies -- against kids." Its main beneficiary is Senator John Kerry, who is being challenged by Weld in the US Senate race.
July 1999: The MTA rolls out a $1.5 million TV-radio-billboard offensive intended "to enhance the image of public education" and show that higher spending is yielding better schools.
April 2002: The MTA's biggest advertising barrage to date -- $1.4 million worth of TV commercials -- calls for higher taxes to stave off cuts in the state's education budget. Without tax hikes, it says, "there will be no new teachers and classrooms -- just drastic cuts, courses canceled, teacher layoffs . . . and lots more students per teacher."
The pattern is pretty hard to miss. Occasionally the union changes the subject, running feel-good spots about the American Dream or fiery denunciations of the MCAS exam, but on the whole its ad dollars -- now up to $2.3 million a year -- advance one consistent theme: Give us more money.
That $2.3 million a year, by the way, doesn't include the huge sums the MTA has poured into political campaigns -- among them, campaigns to fight tax cuts or promote spending. In 1990, for example, the union spent $1.3 million in cash and in-kind contributions to defeat Question 3, a tax-rollback initiative. In 1998, it spent an estimated $1 million to block Citizens for Limited Taxation's proposed initiative lowering the income tax rate to 5 percent. And when the CLT tax cut finally got on the ballot in 2000, the MTA spent at least $850,000 trying to defeat it.
Naturally the teachers union is free to trumpet any message it chooses. But why is that message so often a demand for money? With an ad budget of $2.3 million a year, is a constant prescription of tax-and-spend really the wisest counsel the MTA has to offer?
Why are there never ads about classroom discipline, student motivation, and parental support, issues of acute concern to so many teachers? Where are the ads advocating less TV and more homework? The ads calling for higher standards instead of higher spending? For more accountability instead of more taxes?
Ah, but those aren't the union's top priorities. Dollars are. The MTA puts its ad budget where its heart is, never losing sight of what it truly values most.