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Yesterday’s revelation by Washington Free Beacon of documents detailing how secretive progressive outfit Democracy Alliance coordinated its unsuccessful efforts to elect Democratic candidates during this year’s election cycle have certainly stirred discussion. After all, for all the carping of progressive groups (especially education traditionalists) this year over the role of David and Charles Koch in financing political campaigns, the report by Lachlan Markey show that they are also far too willing to leverage money in their campaigning — and even go around campaign finance laws to do so. This includes the Democracy Alliance members working with Catalist LLC, the data hub for the Democratic National Committee, to use the party’s donor and voter data to quietly coordinate their efforts.

wpid-threethoughslogoYet school reformers should pay great heed to Markey’s report as well as to the documents revealed. Why? Because they also offer a guide on how the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are co-opting progressive groups in order to defend their declining influence over education policy.

As Dropout Nation readers know by now, the NEA and AFT have long been key donors to progressive outfits willing to do their bidding. In 2013-2014 alone, the AFT gave $25,000 each to Progressive States Network, Progress Michigan, and Netroots Nation, while handing out another $60,000 to Center for Popular Democracy’s Action Fund, which has campaigned against the expansion of charter schools and so-called “privatization” of American public education. In 2012-2013, NEA contributed $332,000 to Progress Now; $100,000 to Progressive States Action, an affiliate of the Progressive States Network; and and $30,000 to the Leadership Center for the Common Good Action Fund, one of the now-defunct ACORN’s many spinoffs.

But increasingly, the NEA and AFT are turning to Democracy Alliance for help. For good reason. As novelist Chuck Palahniuk would write, the first rule about membership in Democracy Alliance is that you don’t say you’re part of it. Such secrecy is especially helpful to the Big Two teachers’ unions, who are required by law to report their finances including contributions to political groups; they can donate to Democracy Alliance and its Committee of States, then team up with other progressive outfits with more stealth than they are used to having.

That Democracy Alliance is tied to many of the groups to which NEA and AFT already sustain through their coffers also assures them that they have (mostly) loyal allies at the table; particularly for the NEA, which has found that its contributions to nonprofits haven’t always led to reciprocal support for its agenda, the existence of Democracy Alliance is especially helpful. There’s also the fact that Democracy Alliance is a hub for some of the leading well-heeled progressive donors and political players in the nation. This includes Rob Stein, the founder of the organization, who was a longtime operative for former President Bill Clinton before becoming a seed investor in tech startups, and hedge fund legend George Soros, who is as much a bogeyman to conservatives as the Koch Brothers are to the left.

[Full disclosure: I am an alum of a Koch-backed nonprofit, the Institute for Humane Studies, and an adviser to Black Alliance for Education Options, which received money from Soros’ Open Society Foundations. Yes, I’m bipartisan like that.]

Over the past couple of years, NEA and AFT have become more-prominent players within Democracy Alliance. Last year, after AFT President Randi Weingarten joined Democracy Alliance as a partner, AFT began donating money to the outfit; it gave $60,000 to the outfit in 2013-2014, while also donating $30,000 to its Texas Future Project, which aimed to help Democratic candidates such as gubernatorial nominee Wendy Davis win office. [That donation was part of AFT’s wider mobilizing effort in the Lone Star State.] Weingarten isn’t the only AFT leader or staffer tied with Democracy Alliance. Michelle Ringuette, the former Service Employees International Union operative who is now Weingarten’s assistant, also joined the outfit last year. Weingarten noted that the union would pour $233,000 into Democracy Alliance this year.

The role of the NEA is far more extensive. NEA Executive Director John Stocks (who is now working to coerce the union’s vassals to sign onto its so-called social justice agenda), has long been active in Democracy Alliance’s Committee on States, the hub for its activities on the state level, as well as a member of the organization’s board. This includes bringing in such players as Dave Horwich, a former Clinton Administration advance man who is now the mouthpiece for prime (and secretive) Democratic Party donor Fred Eychaner, to a Democracy Alliance event this year. In April, he replaced Taco Bell heir Robert McKay as chairman of the organization, making the NEA (along with the AFT) the driving force of its agenda. The union is also one of Democracy Alliance’s biggest funders, handing over $110,000 in 2012-2013 (including $25,000 to its Committee on States, the hub for the outfit’s activities on the state level). In fact, the union gave $634,278 to Democracy Alliance between 2009-2010 and 2012-2013, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of filings with the U.S. Department of Labor.

Meanwhile the Big Two are amplifying their support for Democracy Alliance by backing the array of organizations that are part of the organization’s network of progressive activists. Among the organizations: The Nation, the bible of the progressive movement, which became a member of Democracy Alliance’s network within the past year; its affiliate, the Nation Institute, became a new AFT donor in 2013-2014, receiving $10,000 from the union. Another is Demos, the progressive think tank; it picked up $13,333 from AFT this past fiscal year. The results of AFT support (and likely, the affiliation with Democracy Alliance) can be seen in The Nation‘s report late last month on Teach For America’s public relations statement (and misstatement that it was surreptitiously tipped off by Obama Administration officials about a Freedom of Information Act request), as well as an essay criticizing reform in Politico written by Demos scholar (and former New York Times columnist) Bob Herbert. [Note that The Nation didn’t mention its ties with the AFT or Democracy Alliance in the report.]

There’s plenty for the NEA and AFT to learn from Democracy Alliance. One lesson lies in how to get around the campaign finance laws that often serve as firewalls of sorts between the advocacy activities of 501(c)3 nonprofits and explicit campaigning activities of political parties, Super-PACs, and 501(c)4 groups. Expect the two unions and their affiliates to spend plenty of time understanding how Democracy Alliance works those loopholes — and then take advantage of them in their own activities. Given that AFT President Weingarten has snapped up key progressive players such as Ringuette into the union’s fold, don’t be shocked if Democracy Alliance staffers end up working for the union or even for the NEA, both of which offer sweet compensation packages few outside of K Street can match.

The question for the Big Two is how are their ties to Democracy Alliance playing out for them where it counts: At the ballot box. As you already know, it didn’t work out so well. Davis, who was heavily backed by the group and the AFT, lost big in Texas to Republican Gregg Abbott. Other favored progressives also lost big elsewhere. The rank-and-file members for both unions, most of whom are forced to pay into their coffers, can easily argue that the money both unions have sunk into Democracy Alliance was wasted. Both would have been better off devoting the dollars to activities that actually help elevate the teaching profession they both claim to represent.

Just as importantly, NEA and AFT can’t even say that Democracy Alliance is totally in their corner. For one, the organization’s board includes Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, which is both a competitor with AFT in the healthcare field as well as a supporter of school reform efforts through locals in Southern California and elsewhere. There’s also Nick Hanauer, the bedding products heir and tech investor, who challenged the NEA’s Washington State local two years ago. Add in the Center for American Progress, a strong backer of school reform (as well as a wayward recipient of NEA and AFT money), and it is clear that there are plenty of progressives who realize that the efforts of the two unions to defend traditionalist policies and practices fail to serve their political priorities. They also know that aiding and abetting NEA and AFT also means supporting a public sector union version of corporate welfare — or protecting the rich, as they would say — at the expense of poor and minority children as well as their families.

For reformers, especially centrist and progressive Democrats within the movement (who end up working closely with Democracy Alliance-backed outfits even as they oppose their ties to the Big Two), it is important to keep tabs on how both the NEA and AFT are structuring their political activities. With Democracy Alliance becoming an increasingly important part of their influence-buying activities, reformers must be ready to counter with even greater political savvy than they usually display.

Featured photo: NEA Executive Director John Stocks.

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