Dark Money Duplicity The Teachers Unions Decry Dark Money, But Spend Plenty Of It

On Monday, the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance (OCPF) announced they had reached a legal settlement with Families for Excellent Schools-Advocacy (FESA), a major backer of last year’s failed ballot question to raise the state’s charter school cap, following an investigation that found the group had violated campaign finance laws.

Under the terms of the settlement, FESA paid a $426,466 fine – the largest campaign finance penalty in the Commonwealth’s history – and agreed to dissolve itself. The organization was also forced to reveal its list of donors, which they had previously refused to disclose.

Families for Excellent Schools Advocacy was a 501(c)(4) that supported last year’s ballot initiative to raise the charter school cap in Massachusetts.

As might be expected, the news prompted an outburst of schadenfreude from the teachers unions and their allies, who spent over $15 million to defeat the charter cap proposal. They also seized the opportunity to once again portray charter supporters as nothing more than tools of wealthy political interests.

Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, told the Boston Globe, “I’m shocked but not surprised. We always knew that they didn’t want the public to know it was being funded by millionaires and billionaires.”

Meanwhile, the Boston Teachers Union took to social media to revel in FESA’s downfall. On Facebook, BTU shared a statement on the OPCF settlement from “our friends at Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance,” a group which the union just so happens to underwrite.

Plus, Maurice Cunningham, a UMass political science professor and teachers union advocate, penned a widely shared and uber-snarky blog post for WGBH News, in which he called FESA “a dark money front designed to hide millions in contributions from plutocrats,” and said charter supporters “are not poor families eager to improve their children’s schooling but billionaire financiers.”

Let him who is without sin…

The condemnations of “dark money” from the unions and their supporters may not be surprising, but they are certainly hypocritical. Although the teachers unions incessantly decry secretive political spending by their opponents, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), National Education Association (NEA), and their affiliates have made ample use of dark money to conceal their campaign funding.

Dark money groups are usually 501(c)(4) organizations – or “social welfare organizations” as defined by the IRS – which can spend an unlimited amount to support candidates and issue campaigns. However, since they’re technically supposed to be focused on social welfare activities, they can direct no more than 50% percent of their total spending toward political efforts.

A breakdown of super PACs vs. dark money groups.

Unlike super PACs, dark money groups are not required to disclose the names of their donors and therefore are often used by individuals and organizations to hide their contributions. In fact, super PACs and dark money organizations often work in tandem, allowing donors to secretly fund super PACs through their designated 501(c)(4) organizations.

A hypothetical example of how 501(c)(4) organizations are used to conceal the source of campaign funds.

Ironically, AFT was caught using that very maneuver to influence the outcome of Boston’s mayoral election in 2013. In the final weeks of the campaign, Marty Walsh, the long-time president of the local Laborers union, found himself in a tight race against city councilor John Connolly. Hoping to tip the scales in Walsh’s favor, AFT funneled $500,000 through One New Jersey – an out-of-state 501(c)(4) – to One Boston, a mysterious Massachusetts super PAC behind a last-minute blitz of pro-Walsh TV commercials.

Although Walsh went on to win, AFT was forced to admit it was behind the advertising scheme a month after the election. An OCPF investigation later found that One Boston and One New Jersey violated campaign finance laws. The two groups eventually agreed to a settlement in which they paid a $30,000 fine.

A year later, in December 2015, NEA suffered a similar embarrassment when an administrative court judge in Colorado ruled that Jeffco United, a 501(c)(4) behind an effort to recall three school board members in the state’s largest district, violated campaign finance laws by failing to register as a political action committee. When he ordered the organization to reveal its donor list, it showed that NEA and two of its affiliates had contributed $283,500 to Jeffco United, or about 99% of the total raised by the organization.

But the teachers unions’ forays into the realm of dark money are not limited to local elections. AFT and NEA have contributed to some of the biggest and most secretive liberal dark money groups in the country. The most prominent of these is Patriot Majority USA, a dark money group that spent over $30 million on political campaigns in 2014, according to the Center for Public Integrity. While Patriot Majority USA is not required to disclose its donors, Department of Labor filings show that AFT and NEA have given at least $2 million to the organization since 2014.

Screenshot of Patriot Majority USA’s webpage.

AFT and NEA have also given at least $1.7 million to America Votes, another 501(c)(4) with deep pockets and close ties to the Democratic Party. America Votes refused to answer questions about its donors for an article published by Center for Public Integrity last year, but managing director Sara Schreiber did issue a statement that said: “As per its IRS designation as an issues-based advocacy organization, America Votes is not required to publicly disclose its donors.”

There are no innocents

Of course, none of this excuses Families For Excellent Schools-Advocacy’s actions during last year’s ballot question campaign in Massachusetts; there is never an excuse for violating the law. If anything, education reformers need to hold themselves to a higher ethical standard – even in the rough-and-tumble world of electoral politics – since the entrenched interests we’re battling are watching and waiting to pounce.

At the same time, the self-righteous posturing by the teachers unions and their allies over dark money deserves to be called out. The sad truth is that both sides of the education debate exploit the loopholes and gray areas in campaign finance law to their advantage, which over the long run only erodes people’s trust in our political system. The public begins to view the entire process as rigged in favor of shadowy, powerful interests and they stop believing that elected officials speak for them.

And when that happens, no one wins… except Donald Trump.

Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.


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