The school reform movement was shocked last week when likely Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton declared to talk show host (and school reformer) Roland Martin that public charter schools fail to work with “the most challenging students”, and made other points about the schools that have no substance in fact. After all, the former First Lady’s husband, Bill Clinton, has been one of the foremost supporters of charters and other reforms during his tenure in the White House; this includes ushering in the federal Charter School Program, which provides $157 million a year to launch high-quality charters.
Reformers became even more enraged on Sunday after American Federation of Teachers released a transcript in which the former U.S. Secretary of State made even more clear that she was no supporter of transforming American public education. Besides doubling-down on her comments opposing the expansion of charters and school choice, Clinton expressed skepticism about using student test score growth data in teacher evaluations (even though evidence shows that it works), declared a general disdain for using standardized testing in tracking how schools and adults are serving children (despite two decades of evidence proving otherwise), and essentially declared the poor and minority kids shouldn’t be provided comprehensive college-preparatory education (in spite of the demonstrated need for them to gain such knowledge). All in all, Hillary declared that she was not going to be a school reformer-in-chief as President Barack Obama and other recent predecessors (including her husband) have been since Ronald Reagan issued A Nation At Risk four decades ago.
But reformers shouldn’t have been surprised by Clinton’s about-face on charters and systemic reform. This is because AFT, along with the National Education Association, have built strong alliances with key members of Clinton’s inner circle. They now have an inside edge over centrist Democrat reformers who have been dominant within Democratic Party politics since Barack Obama beat Clinton for the nomination seven years ago.
Even as reformers were working closely with the Obama Administration on systemic reform efforts, AFT has been working hard to get an in with Clinton Family Inc. Over the past three years, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union poured $650,000 into the Clinton Global Initiative, the non-explicitly political wing of the Clinton family’s political efforts, and $500,000 into the Bill, Hillary, and Chelsea Clinton Foundation. AFT President Randi Weingarten has become such an important player in the Clinton family universe that Clinton Global allowed her to use one of its events last September to announce the union’s latest Trojan Horse for unionizing the early childhood education sector.
But the ties between AFT and Hillary extend far beyond subsidizing the Clinton family’s numerous adventures. As Dropout Nation reported earlier this year, AFT has also co-opted many within the Clinton inner circle. Weingarten’s former top assistant Hartina Flournoy (who sits on the Democratic National Committee) now serves as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. Thanks to her longtime friendship with Hillary, Flournoy now serves as Weingarten’s key go-between. Even with some of Hillary’s key campaign staffers having ties to the charter school movement, it has become clear that Flournoy is the one actually calling shots on education policy. Which ultimately means that Randi is calling the shots.
Another key player on behalf of AFT is Donna Brazile, the longtime Democratic Party powerhouse and Friend of Hillary, who now chairs AFT’s front group, Democrats for Public Education. As readers know, AFT subsidized Democrats for Public Education to the tune of $99,000 (not including $12,500 that the union has lent to the group). The organization’s ties to other key Democratic leaders (including former Congressional Black Caucus Chair Marcia Fudge) means that AFT can exert even more influence than ever on Hillary’s campaign. The CNN commentator is also a vassal for AFT, with her eponymous firm collecting $100,000 from the union in 2014-2015 alone, according to the union’s filing with the U.S. Department of Labor.
Meanwhile AFT, along with NEA, are using their ties to progressive groups within the Democratic National Committee to attempt to reshape the party’s stances on key education policy issues. This includes playing more-prominent roles within Democracy Alliance, the secretive progressive group whose players include many of the outfits within the Clinton Family universe. While AFT is a new player within Democracy Alliance giving $85,000 to the group and its Texas Future Project in 2014-2015, NEA has long been one of its key players; the union’s executive director, John Stocks, chairs its board. Thanks to Stocks’ presence, the union have given $1.2 million to Democracy Alliance and its main affiliates between 2009-2010 and 2013-2014, according to Dropout Nation‘s analysis of filings with the U.S. Department of Labor.
Some reformers are trying to downplay the significance of AFT’s and NEA’s influence on Hillary’s campaign. Others are hoping that Clinton is just paying lip service to NEA and AFT, as past Democratic presidential candidates have done, and will reverse course once entering office. But this may be wishful thinking. Given the five decades-long ties between Clinton and AFT’s key vassals, all of whom are in her inner circle, Hillary is unlikely to simply talk out of both sides of her mouth. There’s also the fact that dismay among progressive Democrats over the Obama Administration’s efforts on other fronts, along with administration’s botched No Child waiver gambit, has given traditionalists the opening they need to win over both Hillary and congressional Republicans increasingly uninterested in any kind of systemic reform.
Add in the increasingly polarized nature of politics at the federal level, the general disdain Hillary has long had for Obama, and the failure of the current administration to build a strong political base for Democrats at the state level, and Hillary, being the political animal she is, likely sees embracing reform as more nuisance than helpful in building her political legacy. Clinton also probably appreciates the Weingarten’s willingness to use AFT’s machinery to give her cover — including a press conference yesterday in which Weingarten defended Clinton’s statements on charters — even at the expense of angering the union’s own rank-and-file.
The reality has become increasingly clear that Clinton will not advance systemic reform if she wins entry into the Oval Office. Which is why reformers must become savvier on the political front.