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February 26, 2015 standard

When it comes to efforts to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act, hope always triumphs over reality. Even when the kabuki of markups and posturing resemble those of past years, it is easier for some to think that actual legislation will be passed and signed. This time around, the fervent faith can be found among conservative Beltway reformers, who have been irrationally exuberant about the chances of congressional Republicans passing a new version of No Child that they favor since winning control of the Senate and gaining more seats in the House last year.

But the news today that President Barack Obama has pledged to veto any version of the House Republican rewrite of No Child, the Student Success Act, should give conservative reformers pause. So should the sparring between congressional leaders in the House and Senate over whether to excise part of the proposed bill to fund the Department of Homeland Security that essentially kiboshes Obama’s executive order temporarily staying deportation for five million undocumented emigres, many of whom have children who are American citizens by birth. Both situations serve as reminders to reformers of all stripes that they need to focus more time on the nation’s statehouses (where systemic reform efforts are on the agenda) than all the pantomime on Capitol Hill.

Your editor laid out what was likely to happen on the federal education policy front back in November, just after Obama issued his executive order on immigration. Back then, I noted that the president had few reasons to sign any version of No Child coming from congressional Republicans, especially since the latter seeks a total defeat of the Obama Administration’s political agenda. Given that the administration can go ahead and issue extensions of waivers granted as part of its No Child waiver gambit, and that the president no longer has to worry about defending a Democratic majority in Congress, Obama will do whatever is legally and constitutionally possible to defend his legacy on one of his few policy successes. And because congressional Republicans don’t have veto-proof majorities (and cannot count on any support from Democrats), the president will get what he wants.

At the same time, I noted that congressional Republicans would struggle to pass any legislation, much less a reauthorized version of No Child, because of divides between Senate and House Republicans (each of whom are driven by different political pressures),  within their respective caucuses, and between congressional leaders and Republican governors who benefit from the Obama Administration’s waiver gambit. Stalemate was more-likely to be the norm than the exception, save for nearly all spending bills; after all, the Members have to bring pork home to their districts as well as preserve iron triangle relationships from which they can profit once they leave office.

The months since have proven both points. Obama’s veto this week of a bill authorizing construction of the Keystone Pipeline, a project that was of little significance either economically or ecologically (but a political football for both political parties), made clear that he wasn’t simply going to do the bidding of congressional Republicans. The administration’s decision to file a request for a Texas U.S. District Court judge to overrule his decision halting implementation of his immigration executive order — which will lead to a swift appeal once he rules against it — also shows that Obama is sticking to his agenda.

Meanwhile congressional Republicans are struggling to get their own side together. Last month’s revolt by movement conservative true-believers in the caucus against re-electing Speaker John Boehner to another term atop the House revealed how difficult it would be for Republican leadership on the body to get anything passed. That Boehner was then forced to pull back an anti-abortion bill, the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, after moderates in the caucus balked at a provision supporting the ban of the operations after a child has been in the womb for 20 weeks, also shows how difficult it will be for the party to pass all but the least-controversial legislation.

These events haven’t convinced conservative reformers and others of the unlikelihood of a No Child reauthorization. In fact, both former Fordham Institute President Checker Finn and Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute have pieces out lionizing the Student Success Act as legislation that reaffirms the role of states in setting education policy. The fact that both Finn and Hess conveniently ignore that this was actually done by No Child, which gives states wide leeway in meeting basic accountability for student achievement in exchange for federal dollars they agree to receive, shows that both men are engaging in pure intellectual sophistry. Andy Smarick of Bellwether Education Partners, slightly conceding that the low odds of reauthorization, is still offering some convoluted scenario for a compromise on No Child (led by state governments) that isn’t likely to ever happen.

But yesterday’s news about Obama’s veto, along with the stalemate over the Homeland Security funding bill, should force conservative reformers and others to accept reality.

Obama’s announcement of the veto should have been expected by anyone with a modest level of political discernment. After all, the Student Success Act is just another warmed-over version of the No Child evisceration House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline has tried to make law since taking over the panel four years ago. Other than a move to ban restricting the Obama Administration its successors from supporting implementation of state-initiated reforms such as Common Core reading and math standards (a practice that dates back to the Reagan Administration’s publication of A Nation at Risk), the Student Success Act (or H.R. 5, for short) does little more than allow states to spend federal dollars as freely as they did in the years before the passage of No Child 13 years ago.

Since the law also aimed to abolish competitive grant programs such as Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation initiatives that have been the cornerstone of the Obama Administration’s reform efforts, there was no way that the president would even think of signing it. It isn’t just about the administration’s legacy. As Dropout Nation has argued in the past, Race to the Top alone deserves credit for encouraging states to undertake much-needed reforms that are already helping children; this includes expanding the number of charter schools by 24 percent between 2009-2010 and 2013-2014 as well as the passage of Parent Trigger laws in seven states and the launch of voucher and tax credit programs in more than 15 states. [Martin West of Harvard University makes a similar case for I3.] Put simply, Kline’s plan would be a setback for reform.

Senate and House Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are dealing with discord between (and within) their respective caucuses.

Conservative reformers hoping that Obama’s veto is just a prelude to the signing of a supposedly more moderate version from Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Chairman Lamar Alexander are ignoring a few key facts.

For one, Alexander’s plan isn’t much different from Kline’s version, and not even much different from the proposals the former U.S. Secretary of Education (and erstwhile reformer) has been floating around since his days as Ranking Member. This includes essentially ditching the reductions in accountability to lowest-performing five percent of schools (along with another 10 percent of schools with wide achievement gaps) required under the Obama Administration’s senseless No Child waiver gambit. No way the Obama Administration can sign onto such a reauthorization without angering civil rights activists and centrist Democrat school reformers.

There’s also the fact that any plan coming out of Congress will try to reduce executive authority on the education policy front. No president, much less Obama (whose for whom use executive orders and waivers has been a hallmark of his tenure), will sign onto that. [Such political considerations is an underlying reason why governors attending this week’s winter meeting of the National Governors Association, a group that includes such presidential aspirants as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker and John Kasich of Ohio, expressed concern about Kline’s and Alexander’s plans.]

All things considered — including the administration’s No Child waiver extensions (which will stretch beyond Obama’s time in the White House) — there’s no reason for Obama to negotiate anything with anyone. In fact, all he has to do is simply veto whatever No Child reauthorization comes to his desk. That’s if one comes at all. With the way congressional Republicans are sparring with each other over other legislation, it will be a miracle if any bill makes it off the Hill at all.

The past two weeks have seen Boehner and his fellow House Republicans spar with their peers in the Senate over the Homeland Security funding plan, which contains a poison pill restricting the administration from implementing its immigration order. House Republican leadership know that they can’t pass a Homeland Security bill without appealing to both Nativists in the party base as well as movement conservatives who want to hamstring Obama any way possible. Given that Boehner can no longer punish wayward members and cannot count on support from Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and her caucus, the speaker has no choice but to go along with his true-believers.

But Senate Republican leadership know they can’t pass such legislation. After all, they lack the 60 votes necessary to block a Senate Democrat filibuster, and worse, known that many of their own members support the kind of comprehensive immigration reform that the Obama Administration’s plan represents. [That Obama, being a lame duck president with nothing to lose, will veto it if the poison pill remains in place is also a factor.] This reality is why McConnell is offering up a version of the bill that only addresses funding and leaves the president’s executive order in place. This angers House Republicans such as Steve King, the leader of the anti-immigration faction in that caucus, who accused McConnell of just giving up.

Chances are that a Homeland Security funding bill will pass. After all, like defense, the agency is an iron triangle with businesses and other lobbies for whom congressional leaders will eventually work upon leaving office. But it is also possible that the federal government will not fund the salaries of those handling border patrols, airport check points, anti-terrorism operations, drug trafficking crackdowns, and guarding Obama. [All but 31,295 of them would still be working, albeit without pay.]

Meanwhile the intramural squabbling among Republicans has already spread from the Homeland Security bill to No Child reauthorization. Movement conservative true-believers, at the behest of movement conservative think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and even less-sensible conservative reformers such as Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas, are complaining that Kline’s plan isn’t sufficiently conservative in their mind. They want the reauthorzation to allow states to opt out of annual testing (and betray the conservative principle that state must be accountable for federal dollars they receive) as well as voucherize Title 1 dollars (without requiring states to allow the rest of state funding to follow kids into schools they choose).

Other Republicans with American Indian tribes in their districts, will likely join Kline’s fellow Minnesotan in the House, Rick Nolan, to pass an amendment aimed at removing H.R. 5’s restriction on increasing funding for Native education programs. [Those Republicans and Democrats, by the way, teamed up two years ago to amend the earlier version of the Student Success Act and reverse Kline’s effort to eliminate Title VII funding.] Given the abysmal physical and academic conditions of schools run by U.S. Bureau of Indian Education, any reduction in Native education funding will be viewed as a moral violation as well as an abrogation of the federal government’s explicit constitutional responsibility to provide high-quality education to Native kids. Add in the other divides among congressional Republicans over the direction of federal education policy, and one can expect little to come to pass.

So those reformers, conservative and otherwise, expecting more from the Beltway other than the usual sound and fury signifying nothing will be disappointed. They shouldn’t be. History repeats and when it doesn’t, often rhymes. The better thing to do is to ignore the Beltway kabuki and get to work in statehouses while time still allows. After all, most state legislative sessions wrap up by the end of May.

February 25, 2015 standard

There is plenty to say about Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel facing a runoff against AFT-backed Jesus Martinez after failing to gain a majority in yesterday’s mayoral elections. There’s also a few words for the news coming out today that the Obama Administration will veto a reauthorized version of the No Child Left Behind Act if it resembles anything like the legislation House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline is likely to pass out of federal lower house by week’s end. But those are discussions for later on.

Right now, however, school reformers need to have an important conversation about the overuse of out-of-school suspensions and other forms of harsh traditional school discipline that sends our kids onto the path to poverty and prison. Especially in light of a series of reports this week detailing how school operators of all sorts are engaging in practices that do little to address the underlying educational woes at the heart of children acting out in school, it is high time for the movement to end its myopia on actions that can only be called educational abuse and malpractice.

Certainly it is good to hear from the California Department of Education that districts and other school operators reduced out-of-school suspensions by 15.2 percent between 2012-2013 and 2013-2014. Yet plenty of bad news remains. This includes the fact that the out-of-school suspension rates of 11.9 percent for black kids and 8.9 percent for American Indian and Alaska Native peers are more than double the 4.4 percent out-of-school suspension rate overall.

Even worse is that 67 percent of all out-of-school suspensions meted out by school operators in the Golden State aren’t for violent behavior, drugs, or weapons possession, but for so-called “willful defiance” or what other states call disruptive behavior that school leaders and teachers can address through more-effective means. That willful defiance can be arbitrarily determined by adults in schools — including child asking a peer for a pencil during a classroom exercise (and trying to explain his action) — means that schools are putting children onto the path to academic and social failure for no good reason at all.

Then there’s news out of New York City this week, courtesy of analysis by the local branch of the Chalkbeat collection of news sites, that 11 public charter schools meted out-of-school suspensions to three out of every 10 children attending the schools in 2011-2012. While Chalkbeat‘s determination that Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy collection of charters suspended 17 percent of its students was no surprise at all; after all, Dropout Nation editorialized two years ago on its shameful approach to school discipline and the ardent defense of it by Moskowitz and an amen corner that includes Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

But the fact that other big-named charter operators such as KIPP (whose D.C. branch was scrutinized along with other Beltway districts by Dropout Nation last October) and Uncommon Schools were suspending as many as 25 percent of their students, often for behaviors resulting from learning issues, is both shocking and appalling. [Uncommon says it has since overhauled its school discipline approaches.] Even worse, the news comes on the heels of a report released last week by Advocates for Children of New York that discipline policies for some charters may actually be in violation of Empire State law. Especially given the fierce debate over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s effort to expand charter schools, the news is allowing traditionalists to argue that the success of charters is due more to pushing kids out of school than to providing kids with high-quality education.

Meanwhile, as a report issued this week by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA shows, overuse of harsh school discipline isn’t limited to school operations on the coasts. As a team led by Daniel Losen shows, three of the highest-suspending districts in the country are located in Missouri, which has become an epicenter of the battles over overhauling criminal justice and public education systems since Michael Brown’s murder at the hands of now-former Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson last July. [Dropout Nation noted the overuse of harsh discipline by the Ferguson-Florissant and other issues in St. Louis-area districts.] This includes the traditional district in the St Louis suburb of Normandy, whose schools Brown attended before his tragic and senseless slaying, which meted out-of-school and in-school suspensions to 21.7 percent of students in 2011-2012. In fact, the Show-Me State has the nation’s highest suspension rate for black children in elementary grades as well as the widest disparity in rates in suspensions between black and white students.

The overuse of harsh school discipline isn’t just borne upon children black and brown. Children in the nation’s special ed ghettos, already subjected to barbaric practices such as restraints and seclusion (also known to prisoners as solitary confinement), are suspended at rates double those of their peers in regular classrooms. In Florida, where school operators meted out-of-school and in-school suspensions to 37 percent of middle- and high-schoolers in special ed in 2011-2012, nearly double the already-high 19 percent average; the Sunshine State’s suspension rate for kids in special ed is the highest in the nation. Children in English Language Learner programs are also subjected to overuse of harsh school discipline. Districts in Montana, for example, meted out suspensions to 19 percent of ELL students, nearly three times the average for the overall population; since ELL students in Big Sky Country tend to be those from Native tribes, this means that a children already subjected to the worst American public education offers are abused even more.

The news of the past two weeks, along with reports on lawsuits such as that filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of eight children against the Birmingham district for using pepper spray on children, should horrify the school reform movement. The fact that some charter school operators, who should be innovating on the school discipline front, are embracing the worst of traditionalist practices should anger them especially. Given the decades of evidence from researchers such as Indiana University’s Russell Skiba and John Wallace of the University of Pittsburgh that traditional school discipline practices do little to improve student achievement, enhance school cultures, or make kids safer, reformers should be demanding charter school outfits such as Success to stop damaging children in their care.

In fact, the movement’s leading lights should be teaming up with researchers on school discipline and criminal justice reform advocates to work on addressing the underlying causes of overusing harsh discipline: The failure to provide functionally-illiterate children with intensive reading remediation; low-quality teaching and classroom management; shoddy, arbitrary school leadership; and the belief among adults in schools that kids from poor and minority backgrounds are troublemakers and thus, unworthy of high-quality education.

Yet as has always been the case when it comes to school discipline (as well as on many issues involving the school-to-prison pipeline), there is silence from many reformers when there should be outrage and action. Certainly this isn’t true of all reformers; from former California State Senator Gloria Romero (with whom your editor has co-written a series of pieces on ending the school-to-prison pipeline) to Educators4Excellence, there are reformers demanding better for our kids. They should even be applauding moves by the Obama Administration to force districts overusing suspensions to overhaul their school discipline practices as well as backing efforts such as California’s move last year to restrict schools from suspending kids for willful defiance.

Neither traditional districts nor charter operators such as Eva Moskowitz’s Success Academy can defend subjecting our children to school discipline practices that fail to help them succeed.

But as evidenced by Petrilli in some claptrap written for the New York Times in December proclaiming that kids suspended by charters don’t care about their education, as well as in pieces from colleagues such as former New Schools for New Orleans boss Neerav Kingsland, there are far too many instances of reformers making excuses for overusing suspensions as well as for discipline practices that should never be used by any adult proclaiming to care for kids.

These reformers will argue, as Petrilli has done in the past, that poor and minority children are somehow worse-behaved than peers from white and middle class households. Yet three decades of evidence disproves the assertion. Losen and his team once again point this out in their analysis, noting that 51 districts meted out suspensions to fewer than three percent of black kids (as well as children overall); that black students account for 25 percent or more of enrollment further proves the reality that the problem lies not with the children, but with the teachers and school leaders charged with helping them succeed.

This isn’t exactly surprising. Given that most out-of-school and in-school suspensions are meted out for what are arbitrarily determined by teachers and school leaders to be disruptive behavior, the use of harsh school discipline is less about the children than about the adults making the decisions. And in nearly all cases, school operators use harsh school discipline as ways to excuse themselves from dealing with the learning issues of the children they are supposed to serve.

The so-called reformers will proclaim that overusing harsh school discipline helps schools maintain order. Yet as Skiba and others have pointed out ad nauseam, the highest-suspending school operations in the nation also tend to be the worst of American public education’s dropout factories and failure mills. This includes the Pontiac district in Michigan (a subject of a Dropout Nation commentary on the problems of laggard black teachers and school leaders), which meted out suspensions to 31.7 percent of elementary students in 2011-2012, the highest levels of such educational abuse in the nation.

The fact that some charter school operators are outliers to the trend doesn’t justify overusing harsh discipline, especially when restorative practices that do a better job of teaching kids how to behave are available. As charters in New Orleans (at the behest of the Recovery School District and community activists) have shown in reducing suspensions, and as charters in New York City have proven in their reduction of kids labeled special ed, charters can actually provide kids with high-quality education without resorting to traditionalist practices that should be used only for the worst situations (if at all). School choice cannot help all kids succeed if it simply means subjecting kids to bad practices

Meanwhile these reformers will even try to declare that the views of teachers and school leaders towards poor and minority children isn’t the reason for high levels of suspensions meted out to them. Such arguments are belied by the evidence. This includes Wallace’s 2008 study on referrals to dean’s offices, which showed that young black men in 10th grade are 30 percent more-likely to be sent to dean’s offices for punishment than their white male peers — and 330 percent more-likely to be suspended afterwards than white counterparts.

When you look at how American public education damages black children (especially in overlabeling them as special ed cases), sensible reformers can’t help but agree with Vanderbilt University Professor Daniel J. Reschly’s determination that adults in schools  end up labeling certain groups of students as learning disabled because they think they are destined to end up that way. By against the evidence, reformers such as Petrilli end up engaging in the intellectually sophomoric thinking that policies and practices are only racialist or biased if they explicitly targets a race or ethnicity. As history has shown over and over again, the consequences of policies and practices can be as biased against particular people as overt and explicit acts.

But reformers must understand the consequences of overusing school discipline extend beyond classrooms. When districts overuse harsh school discipline, they teach law enforcement outside schools that poor and minority children are only criminals. This matters because schools account for the second-most referrals of status cases into juvenile courts as well as because districts have come to use law enforcement agencies (including the 250 police departments they control) to handle discipline. The results of this criminalization of youth (especially young black men) by schools can be seen in Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association President Steve Loomis argument to Politico‘s Connie Schultz that 12-year-old Tamir Rice was “menacing” because he was the height of an average grown man, and thus, deserved to be murdered by police officer Timothy Loehmann within seconds of arriving on scene for playing with a toy gun.

What reformers must remember that we are like born-again Christians, having publicly declared that we behave and conduct ourselves differently than those who defend traditionalist thinking. This means we cannot defend harsh school discipline practices that cannot be defended empirically or otherwise. Particularly on this key culprit in pushing kids into the school-to-prison pipeline, reformers can’t take positions that even a teachers’ union such as the AFT’s Chicago Teachers Union would look askance.

So reformers can’t remain silent on addressing overuse of harsh school discipline, or worse, aid and abet those practices. We must push all school operators — especially those with who we share common cause — to do better by all of our children.

February 24, 2015 standard

We like to say that Black lives matter, Latino lives matter, poor children’s lives matter, even English Language Learner lives matter. Yet families, especially those of children of color, have to fight so long and hard so that our children get the educational opportunities they need. This is because there are other people who don’t think their lives matter.

America made a stand for equity and for all lives when it passed the No Child Left Behind Act 13 years ago. Obstruction from states and school districts limited execution of some of those provisions. But the law’s Adequate Yearly Progress provision has shined important light on how many schools, including those in suburbs in states such as Connecticut (where my kids and I live) are poorly serving our children, especially those of color.

Now thanks to the Obama Administration’s No Child waivers granted to states such as Connecticut, the educational and civil rights of our children are being waved goodbye.

Thanks to the Obama Administration’s No Child waiver process, states like Connecticut, which has one of the nation’s most-persistent socioeconomic achievement gaps to ignore No Child’s Supplemental Educational Services provision and gut tutoring and other afterschool programs. Certainly states and districts have done everything they can to avoid setting aside 20 percent of Title 1 dollars for those services – and haven’t fulfilled the promise of the law. But for our children, especially in poor-performing districts such as Bridgeport, those services could help them improve their reading and numeracy.

Because of the No Child waivers, Connecticut now takes those SES dollars and hands them to locals of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers to fund so-called professional development programs. This now means that teachers in my state can take culinary classes instead of working on improving instruction in reading and math on behalf of our children. Cooking classes over reading? Where is the accountability in that?

Even more shameful, the No Child waivers allow states to relegate poor and minority children into super-subgroups. In Connecticut, this takes the form of the “high needs subgroup” consisting of ELL students, low-income students, and kids in special ed. This essentially defeating No Child’s original intent of disaggregating data on how our children are performing so we can know how schools are serving them. Thanks to super-subgroup gamesmanship in Connecticut and elsewhere, districts can continue to funnel our children into the school-to-prison pipeline, harming children of color and those who are poor.

What is so disheartening about the No Child waivers is that the Obama Administration could have avoided all of this damage. As Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle has chronicled over the past few years, peer review panels have determined that there were problems with nearly all the waiver proposals submitted to the federal government. Particularly in the case of Connecticut, the peer review panel concluded that the state department of education provided “limited information” on how the performance of subgroups would be tracked under the state’s new accountability system. The state’s super-subgroup subterfuge “could make it more difficult to identify specific subgroup needs” and let districts hide their inattention to our neediest students by overemphasizing the success of high-achieving kids from wealthier homes.

In spite of these concerns, the Obama Administration approved Connecticut’s waiver as well as those of other states at the expense of our children. Even worse, as the state moves today to convene parents and others to get the blessing for a waiver extension, it is unlikely that it will make any changes to its waiver that will actually expand accountability, choice, or help for our children most in need.

So let me be clear: Thanks to the No Child waivers, a wealthy state that home to some of the nation’s most-prestigious universities can continue to ignore one of the worst achievement gaps the country. Thanks to the waivers, the state can ignore the socioeconomically disadvantaged in its cities, the children of color in its persistently-failing schools, and the kids endangered by unsafe and poor-performing schools. Thanks to the waivers, Connecticut gets a free pass on its failure to provide high-quality education to 50,000 children, who will eventually become the adults who are underemployed and unable to qualify for meaningful work.

As a Democrat and as a black woman, I have to say the Obama Administration’s waiver effort has set our state back and has set the nation back. The waiver effort is one reason why discussions in Congress are now focused on further rolling back accounting and leaving children in color and kids in poverty behind. There’s no way we can call the waivers nothing less than a violation of our promise to our children to protect their civil rights, an abrogation of educational equality, and a setback to our communities.

It is hard enough in Connecticut to fight teachers’ unions and other entrenched interests uninterested in providing my children and kids like them with great education. This is why other parents and I are fighting this year to build upon the nation’s second Parent Trigger law and beat back efforts to place a moratorium on expanding charter schools. But thanks to the No Child waivers, the fight we are waging is even harder.

February 23, 2015 standard

Chances are that the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are likely happy that they aren’t facing the kind of scrutiny greeted upon likely presidential candidate Hillary Clinton or her fellow Democrats. Which given the Big Two’s oft-strained ties of mutual convenience to the Democratic National Committee, should be considered a public relations miracle.

Over the past few weeks, media outlets such as the Washington Post along with groups such as Center for Public Integrity have raised questions about the fundraising practices of the foundation founded by former U.S. Secretary of State and her husband, the former President of the United States. This includes questions about whether the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation has inadvertently helped foreign donors such as Canadian financier Frank Giustra (with help from banking giant HSBC) circumvent the tax laws of their respective countries, as well as whether the companies and foreign governments are circumventing campaign finance laws (and looking to win help from Hillary if she wins the White House) by donating to Clinton’s nonprofit machine.

Concerns about the appearances of impropriety (which are always worse than reality) have become so great that the New York Times demanded the Clinton Foundation to reinstate a ban on foreign donations that was in place during Hillary’s tenure as head of the nation’s chief vehicle for foreign policy. [The Clinton Foundation says it is more-transparent about its fundraising activities than other nonprofits.]

But a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission last week against the Democratic National Committee as well as Clinton’s unsuccessful run for president seven years ago and that of President Barack Obama raises the possibility that the campaign finance and political spending practices of the Big Two teachers’ unions may come under real scrutiny from federal officials, conservative-leaning advocates, and the school reform movement itself.

The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust alleges in its 109-page complaint that the DNC, Democratic political campaigns, and progressive outfits such as the notoriously-shadowy Democracy Alliance, through the efforts of former Clinton Administration honcho Harold Ickes’ Catalist LLC and NGP Van (which manages the DNC’s databases), are sharing voter lists, fundraising information, and other data for their congressional and presidential election campaigning. By selling such data at below-market rates to political campaigns and to advocates alike — as well as through the presence of prominent Democratic Party in financing Catalist and Democracy Alliance — Democrats are essentially coordinating political and advocacy activities.

Such coordination between 501(c)3 nonprofits (which are supposed to be focused on pure advocacy), Super-PACs, 501(c)4 groups, and political campaigns (the latter three engaged in explicit political campaigning) is a violation of the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, which is supposed to be a firewall against such activities. There’s also the possibility that such coordination may also violate federal tax laws, especially since 501(c)3s are restricted from anything other than advocacy. [The fact that much of political advocacy ends up resembling lobbying in practice is another matter entirely.]

For now, neither NEA nor AFT have been named by FACT in its complaint. But the two unions have plenty to sweat about. After all, as Dropout Nation reported in November, the Big Two have spent the past few years building close ties to Democracy Alliance, which has worked aggressively to dodge the firewalls between advocacy and political campaigning.

NEA Executive Director John Stocks, a longtime player within Democracy Alliance, took over as its chairman last year, and has stepped up the union’s support of the group’s network of progressive advocacy groups. NEA has poured $794,728 into Democracy Alliance and its direct affiliates between 2009-2010 and 2013-2014, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of the union’s filings with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Meanwhile AFT has become tied to Democracy Alliance. Last year, the union’s president, Randi Weingarten, and her top assistant, former Service Employees International Union honcho Michelle Ringuette, became Democracy Alliance members. AFT also poured $90,000 to the group as well as its Texas Future Project. Given the AFT’s longstanding efforts to co-opt progressive groups, AFT will likely give even more money to Democracy Alliance this fiscal year.

But for NEA, the risk of scrutiny doesn’t just lie with the Big Two’s ties to Democracy Alliance. NEA has spent $2.1 million with Catalist between 2009-2010 and 2013-2014; it also spent $614,746 with NGP Van between 2010-2011 and 2013-2014. Based on NEA’s relationship with Catalist and NGP Van, along with the union’s ties to Democracy Alliance, the union could end up being ensnared in a future FEC complaint.

AFT has less exposure because much of the focus of its political spending is targeted toward state and local campaigns. But given that the union is also devoting its member dollars to players within the wider Democracy Alliance network — including an affiliate of the Nation and progressive think tank Demos — questions can be raised about whether it is coordinating advocacy and explicitly political campaigning.

The bigger questions for AFT lie in its giving to the Clinton’s collection of charities. As Dropout Nation reported in October, AFT gave $250,000 to the Clinton Foundation and $200,000 to the Clinton Global Initiative (whose operations are managed by the Clinton Foundation, according to its filings with the Internal Revenue Service). One can easily surmise that AFT is using its contributions to purchase Hillary Clinton’s support for its agenda — and to fight off the dominance of reformers in Democratic Party politics. Considering the scrutiny on the Clinton’s charities, you can expect Hillary’s team to play down any ties between the union and her apparatus, and even go further in embracing her husband’s legacy in advancing systemic reform. Which could mean that AFT has spent money for nothing.

But let’s keep it real: NEA and AFT often blur the lines between advocacy and explicit politicking. As Dropout Nation Contributor Dmitri Mehlhorn and others have noted, the Big Two have long used so-called member communications and other union activities to command rank-and-file members to engage in advocacy. There’s also the contributions made by the two unions to supposedly like-minded groups, including progressive outfits such as Center for Popular Democracy’s Action Fund, civil rights groups such as the League of United Latin American Citizens, and education players such as the Schott Foundation for Public Education and its Opportunity to Learn Action Fund. As seen late last year, when LULAC and Schott signed up onto NEA’s and AFT’s effort to weaken the No Child Left Behind Act’s accountability and testing provisions, the two unions count on these outfits to carry its water inside city halls, statehouses, and on Capitol Hill.

Reformers, along with conservative groups (including right-to-work outfits), can easily point to how NEA and AFT blur the lines between advocacy and politicking. Especially for reformers, the political nature of Big Two spending allows them to point to this reality: That classroom teachers, most of whom are forced by state laws and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling in Abood v. Detroit Board of Education to pay into NEA and AFT in the form of dues and so-called agency fees (which are essentially dues), are subsidizing political activities with which they may not support in violation of their First Amendment right to free speech. This is a point U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Samuel Allito made in his decision last year in the case of Harris v. Quinn; it will likely come up again this year if the high court takes up Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, in which a group of Golden State teachers are seeking to end the ability of NEA and AFT affiliates to forcibly collect dues from their paychecks.

Given the FACT complaint, expect reformers, movement conservative groups, and even good government types to submit NEA and AFT spending to further scrutiny. This year may turn out to be even worse for the Big Two teachers’ unions than the last.

February 19, 2015 standard

On this week’s Dropout Nation Podcast, RiShawn Biddle reads through the Schott Foundation for Public Education’s latest report and explains why we must overhaul public education on behalf of young black men.

You can listen to the Podcast at RiShawn Biddle Radio or download directly to your mobile or desktop device. Also, subscribe to the podcast series, and embed this podcast on your site. It is also available on iTunesBlubrry, Stitcher, and PodBean.