As Dropout Nation noted last month, the past few weeks haven’t been so sweet for Hillary Clinton or supporters of her as-yet-announced campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. Last night’s report by the New York Times that the former First Lady and Secretary of State used her personal e-mail address to handle government business — and avoid federal transparency laws such as the Federal Records Act and the Freedom of Information Act — once again brought up longstanding accusations that she (along with her husband) play fast and loose with the law, always has something to hide, and are constantly engaged in political gamesmanship. That the news comes on the heels of revelations that the foundation she controls with the former president has taken millions in donations from foreign governments — especially during her tenure as the figurehead of the State Department — and questions about the fundraising tactics of groups supporting her presidential run makes the news about her e-mail-gaming even more controversial.
But for school reformers and others, the big question that must be confronted lies not with Clinton’s penchant for avoiding transparency, but with what steps she would take on federal education policy if she wins the White House next year. Alyson Klein of Education Week detailed some of those issues in a piece published today. But a full consideration of Clinton’s policy stances may mean paying attention to Clinton’s ties to the American Federation of Teachers and its goal of halting systemic reform.
As Dropout Nation reported in October, the nation’s second-largest teachers union gave $250,000 to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation, one of Hillary’s (and Bill’s) non-explicitly political ventures, and $200,000 to the Clinton Global Initiative. The donations make AFT a pauper among the foreign governments, corporation, and business players who have poured more than $2 billion into the Clinton philanthropies since the former president left office 14 years ago. But given that reformers have given nothing to the Clinton empire, it puts the union in a prime position to lobby Hillary and Bill. In fact, AFT President Randi Weingarten took advantage of that opportunity last month when she made an appearance with former President Clinton at Clinton Global Initiative’s annual winter meeting in New York City.
But the ties between AFT and the Clintons extend beyond last year’s donations. Weingarten’s former top assistant Hartina Flournoy (who sits on the Democratic National Committee) now serves as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff. A longtime confidante of Hillary’s, Flournoy’s now-official presence in the Clinton world gives Weingarten an important emissary on the union’s behalf. There’s also longtime Democratic Party powerhouse Donna Brazile, another Friend of Hillary, who now co-chairs the AFT’s front group, Democrats for Public Education with a group that includes Congresswoman Marcia Fudge (who formerly co-chaired the Congressional Black Caucus, a longtime beneficiary of AFT largesse, and herself has collected $35,000 from the union during her career). Brazile will certainly play a major role in Clinton’s election campaign, and will likely whisper in her ear on Randi’s behalf.
The ties between AFT and Clinton Inc., even extend to other political players. The AFT has paid $378,833 to political consultancy Adelstein Liston, which helped the union back Clinton’s 2008 Democratic president nomination run. Some of AFT’s vassals also have strong ties to the Clinton universe. This includes Schott Foundation for Public Education, whose president, John H. Jackson, served as a senior policy advisor to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights during the last years of the Bill Clinton presidency; and Center
Given the strong ties between AFT and Clinton Inc., as well as the union’s past support for Clinton’s unsuccessful run for the Democratic nomination against Barack Obama seven years ago, reformers can’t help but wonder how much sway the union will have if Hillary wins the White House.
Certainly Bill’s record on systemic reform — including an effort to implement teacher certification in Arkansas and passing the Improving America’s Schools Act (which helped advance efforts that led to the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002) — is solid. But while Hillary helped Bill out on some of those efforts, she is her own person. Hillary’s ties to Peter and Marian Wright Edelman (for whom she worked during her days at the Children’s Defense Fund) may be helpful to reformers, especially if their son, Jonah (the founder of Stand for Children) gets into her ear. But given that the ties between the Edelman family and the Clintons were strained in the 1990s after Bill signed welfare reform legislation, that’s not a relationship that can be counted on.
The presence of former Center for American Progress boss John Podesta as chairman of Hillary’s unannounced presidential campaign also offers promise for the movement. After all, CAP has been one of the foremost backers of systemic reform among centrist Democrats — even though it also collects money from AFT and NEA; Podesta still chairs the outfit’s board. But with Flournoy and Brazile in Hillary’s ear, Podesta may not have enough pull on behalf of reformers. Besides, he will be a tad too busy orchestrating Clinton’s presidential run to help as much as the movement may want. Of course, never forget that some of the movement’s leading lights, including Andy Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners, were also key players in Bill’s administration, the now-defunct Democratic Leadership Council, and the Progressive Policy Institute.
Considering the hits Hillary is taking right now, she faces some tough odds of winning the presidency. She may not even be able to hold off a still-unlikely challenge from Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (who has declined the chance to run in spite of enthusiasm from progressives in the Democratic Party base). [AFT, along with National Education Association, will likely face questions about its campaign finance tactics, further complicating its efforts.] But reformers currently at the helm of education policymaking within the Democratic National Committee need to come up with a strategy to hold off AFT’s efforts to return traditionalists back to top position. And fast.