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.