When Hillary Clinton decided to skip an education forum hosted by Campbell Brown last fall, I wrote a piece arguing that pro-reform Democrats shouldn’t read too much into it. I insisted it wasn’t a signal that she was distancing herself from the education policies embraced by the Obama Administration. Surely, I said, Clinton just wanted to placate the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA), whose endorsements she had only recently secured and not without controversy. After all, it was “hard to imagine Clinton, with her New Democrat pedigree and track record of support for reform policies, embracing the teachers unions’ prerogatives.”
Nine months later, with the nomination contest over and the Democratic National Convention less than a week away, I am now convinced that my rosy assessment was wrong. We’re in troubled waters. Soon after I published that post, Clinton made the dubious claim that most charter schools “don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids” at a campaign stop in South Carolina. Although her staff quickly tried to walk back the statement, Clinton’s subsequent comments on teacher evaluation and testing have raised serious red flags.
Clinton says testing hurts low income kids the most. #NEARA16
— Stephen Sawchuk (@Stephen_Sawchuk) July 5, 2016
AFT and NEA have also rallied strongly behind the presumptive Democratic nominee, who in turn, told a crowd of cheering delegates at NEA’s annual convention earlier this month, “If I am fortunate enough to be elected president, educators will have a partner in the White House, and you’ll always have a seat at the table.”
Nevertheless, I’m not as worried about Clinton’s education policy statements as I am about the weakened position of reformers vis-à-vis the teachers unions, both within the Democratic Party and Clinton’s inner circle.
Platform Controversy Points To Larger Issue
Take the current controversy over the education policy changes to the draft Democratic Party platform. The amendments, which were approved during the final meeting of the Platform Committee in Orlando on July 9th, oppose the use of test results to evaluate schools and teachers, uphold the right of parents to opt-out of testing, and are critical of charter schools.
Taken together, the changes represent a near-total rejection of the Obama Administration’s K-12 education policies over the past eight years. Yet when AFT issued a celebratory press release about the platform last week, pro-reform Democrats seemed to be caught flat-footed by the news. In response, Democrats For Education Reform (DFER) quickly issued a statement criticizing the platform changes, saying it would “roll back progress we’ve made in advancing better outcomes for all kids, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.”1 Others sought to downplay their significance by arguing that platforms don’t really matter.
But the concerns raised by the platform amendments have less to do with their practical impact than with the fact they were adopted with little debate and what that says about the position of reformers within the party.
How did we go from a situation in which pro-reform Democrats were setting the nation’s K-12 education agenda to one in which the platform of President Obama’s own party repudiates those policies? A look at the membership of the Platform Committee suggests at least part of the answer. While it’s hard to find steadfast education reform supporters from among the nearly 200 delegates on the committee, the teachers unions and their allies are well-represented. AFT president Randi Weingarten was even on the panel and played a leading role in getting the controversial amendments passed. It suggests that while reformers have had success in pushing our policy agenda over the past eight years, we neglected to build a presence within the party structure (and by extension, within state Democratic Party central committees) to counter the influence of the unions and steer the education conversation among Democrats over the long term.
AFT & NEA: Well-Connected Inside The Beltway
Moreover, while they portray themselves as lowly underdogs fighting against an all-powerful cabal of billionaires and corporate interests, AFT and NEA have extensive connections to some of the most influential organizations in Democratic politics. If anything, reformers appear outgunned and outflanked by the unions, who spend tens of millions each year to advance their political agenda and their 2015 annual reports to the Department of Labor reveal ties to key figures in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.2
One of them is Harold Ickes, an attorney and lobbyist who currently serves on the Democratic National Committee’s powerful Rules and Bylaws Committee. Michael Lewis once described Ickes as “Bill Clinton’s Garbage Man” for his willingness to do the President’s dirty work, both as a central figure in Clinton’s presidential campaign and later as Deputy of Chief of Staff in the White House. He has since served as a senior advisor to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaigns, her 2008 presidential bid, and is now a top advisor to Clinton’s super PAC, Priorities USA.
AFT gave his political consulting firm, The Ickes & Enright Group, $180,000 in F.Y. 2015. Meanwhile, NEA paid over $725,000 to another Ickes venture, Catalist, LLC, which “provides high quality data and modeling capacity to Democrats and progressive organizations.”
The unions also have ties to David Brock, a seasoned (and hairtastic) political operative who helped orchestrate right-wing attacks on the Clintons in the 1990s before eventually defecting to the Democrats. Brock now oversees a network of super PACs and nonprofits focused on defending Hillary Clinton’s record and taking the fight to her opponents. Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Times revealed Brock was also paying Clinton’s confidant and unofficial advisor, Sidney Blumenthal, around $200,000-a-year through his various organizations.
They also gave approximately $245,000 to a secretive group of wealthy Democratic Party supporters called the Democracy Alliance. Described as “the closest thing the left has to the vaunted Koch brothers’ political network,” the Democracy Alliance has “steered upward of $500 million to a range of groups…such as the conservative media watchdog Media Matters, the policy advocacy outfit Center for American Progress and the data firm Catalist – all of which are run by Clinton allies.”
Speaking of the Center For American Progress, several high-ranking officials in the Clinton campaign have been drawn from the ranks of the organization (and its sister 501(c)(4), the Center For American Progress Action Fund), including campaign chair John Podesta, communications director Jennifer Palmieri, senior policy director Maya Harris, and research director Tony Carrk. Not surprisingly, both the Center For American Progress and its Action Fund were beneficiaries of the teachers unions’ largesse. AFT and NEA’s financial disclosures show that they gave a combined total of $355,000 to the two organizations in the past fiscal year.
Still, that’s just a fraction of the amount the teachers unions steered toward Waterfront Strategies, an organization which works closely with liberal super PACs to buy advertising in support of candidates. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Waterfront raked in more money from campaigns and PACs than any other firm during the 2014 election cycle: a whopping $136 million.
Waterfront Strategies also happens to be a subsidiary of the political consulting giant GMMB, founded by Jim Margolis, a former advisor to President Obama who currently serves as senior media advisor for the Clinton campaign. AFT and NEA together paid Waterfront Strategies over $1.9 million for their services in F.Y. 2015.
Finally, AFT and NEA are patrons of the Dewey Square Group, a major Democratic strategy firm that Pro Publica has described “as a primary example of an ascendant breed in the Washington influence industry,” whose “main service is what’s known as ‘grass-tops organizing,’ to help corporate clients win over Democratic constituencies.” Filings show the two teachers unions paid a combined total of nearly $750,000 to the group in the last fiscal year.
As first reported by Politico back in January 2014, Dewey Square laid the groundwork for the launch of Hillary Clinton’s current presidential bid. Subsequently, Clinton named Dewey Square’s founder, Charlie Baker, as chief administrative officer of her campaign.3
Where Do We Go From Here?
I’m not raising these facts to suggest that education reform supporters shouldn’t support Hillary Clinton. I have supported Hillary and will continue to support her. I’m also not suggesting that Hillary Clinton has wholeheartedly embraced the teachers unions’ public education agenda. It’s hard to envision a future Clinton Administration undertaking a dramatic shift in direction on education – and in any case, the advent of the Every Student Succeeds Act means that Washington has far less ability to bring about such a change.
But we shouldn’t hang our hat on the idea that Clinton will eventually come around to our side once in the White House. Reformers need to move aggressively to fight for the gains we’ve made in states across the country, which the teachers unions are already furiously trying to undo. We need to build a solid bloc of reform supporters within the apparatus of the Democratic Party. And, we need to reclaim the conversation about public education from the teachers unions. In short, we need to get out of the defensive posture we’ve assumed in recent years and once again go on the offensive.
Explore AFT & NEA’s F.Y. 2015 Annual DOL Reports:
- Full disclosure: I serve on the board of DFER Louisiana (but these views are mine alone). ↩
- Note that these reports, taken together, cover the period between July 1, 2014 and August 31, 2015 (for AFT: 7/1/14 to 6/30/15 & for NEA: 9/1/14 to 8/31/15) and therefore do not include union spending from the past 9+ months. ↩
- I would be remiss if I left out AFT’s ties to political strategist Donna Brazile, who managed Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign and now serves as Vice Chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. AFT paid her consulting firm, Brazile & Associates, nearly $110,000 over an 11-month period beginning in July 2014. Coincidentally, that same month, Brazile announced the launch of Democrats for Public Education, a political organization whose name, as Education Week noted, is a “not-so-subtle swing at Democrats for Education Reform.” Subsequently, AFT contributed an additional $99,000 to support Democrats for Public Education, for which Brazile now serves as co-chair. ↩