Why Is NBC Taking Sides In The Public Education Debate?

Upcoming education forum is a PR stunt organized by the teachers unions and organizations they fund

Last week, NBC announced it will host a nationally-televised forum for Democratic presidential candidates on December 14th that will focus exclusively on public education issues.

NBC’s Public Education Forum 2020, which is being held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center in downtown Pittsburgh, will be moderated by MSNBC Live host Ali Velshi and NBC News education correspondent Rehema Ellis.

A string of contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination are scheduled to attend the event, including Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Michael Bennet, and Tom Steyer.

Nevertheless, this won’t be your typical presidential campaign town hall. That’s because NBC is organizing the forum in collaboration with the American Federation of TeachersNational Education Association, and a handful of organizations that the two unions fund. Plus, the event is closed to the general public and press access has been strictly limited.

As a result, those tuning into the forum shouldn’t expect to see a balanced discussion of the myriad challenges facing America’s public schools. Instead, the format of the event suggests that AFT and NEA are using the forum to litmus test Democratic presidential hopefuls on issues like charters, testing, and accountability. Although Velshi and Ellis are serving as moderators, the candidates will be answering questions posed by a select group of teachers, education activists, and community members.

Something tells me they won’t be framing their queries in a way that puts education reforms in a positive light.

The big question is why NBC agreed to participate in – and lend legitimacy to – what is clearly a PR stunt cooked-up by two of the most powerful special interest groups in Democratic politics. Perhaps network executives were fooled into believing that the organizations behind the event represent a diverse cross-section of constituencies and viewpoints, a perception those groups have been trying to create in the media. For example, a recent article (without a byline) in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette claimed the various organizations involved have “different needs” and “often disagree on issues.”

Nothing could be further from the truth. All of the groups have substantial financial ties to AFT and NEA and nearly all sing the same tune when it comes to education.

Although journalists like Rachel Cohen or Ryan Grim are usually quick to point out the funders behind education groups, they have yet to bring attention to the fact that AFT and NEA are bankrolling this coalition. Therefore, I’ve taken upon myself to flesh out the financial and organizational ties between the unions and the groups involved in the upcoming forum below…

Alliance for Educational Justice

The first thing to know about the Alliance for Educational Justice is that doesn’t actually exist, at least in a legal sense.

AEJ is not registered as a non-profit (or for-profit) organization, it has no physical address, and it doesn’t even have its own website. It only has a Facebook page and a Twitter account, both of which churn out a steady stream of anti-charter and anti-reform posts.

Tax filings indicate that AEJ is actually an advocacy campaign launched by the Movement Strategy Center in Oakland, an organization that has received financial support from AFT and other union-funded groups.

Center for Popular Democracy Action

The Center for Popular Democracy is a Brooklyn-based advocacy organization that works hand-in-glove with national labor unions, including AFT and NEA, to advance their agendas in states and communities across the country. They do this by organizing and underwriting a network of state and local “grassroots” activist groups, which now includes 61 organizations in 33 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

As of November, annual filings with the U.S. Department of Labor showed that the Center for Popular Democracy (and its sister 501(c)(4), Center for Popular Democracy Action Fund) have received nearly $4.52 million in funding from AFT and NEA since F.Y. 2013.

AFT president Randi Weingarten previously served on CPD’s board of directors, but now serves on the organization’s Strategic Advisory Council, along with representatives from the AFL-CIO, NEA, SEIU, and the Working Families Party.

Journey for Justice Alliance

Like AEJ, the Journey for Justice Alliance isn’t an actual organization, but an advocacy campaign run under auspices of the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization in Chicago. Jitu Brown, who claims to be Journey for Justice’s executive director, is in fact an employee of KOCO.

AFT, NEA, and the Chicago Teachers Union have given the Kenwood-Oakland Community Organization a combined total of $653,000 since F.Y. 2013. KOCO also gets significant financial support from the Chicago Teachers Union Foundation, including $320,000 between F.Y. 2015 and F.Y. 2018.


A lot of ink has been spilled about the NAACP’s controversial call for a moratorium on charter schools, so instead of explaining their (hypocritical, illogical) positions on education issues, I’ll simply refer you to this piece from my friend Chris Stewart, which paints a damning picture of the NAACP’s charter school betrayal.

The NAACP has ties with the teachers unions that stretch back decades and the organization has long benefitted from their financial support. According to annual filings from the U.S. Department of Labor, AFT and NEA have contributed more than $1,400,000 to the NAACP and its affiliates since 2012.

Network for Public Education Action

The Network for Public Education is an anti-education reform organization founded by Diane Ravitch, Anthony Cody, and Carol Burris in 2014. NPE opposes standardized testing, charter schools, accountability, and teacher evaluations, while promoting a cult of personality around Ravitch and peddling her books.

Tax filings show that the Network for Public Education has received $340,000 from the Chicago Teachers Union Foundation, which has $53 million in assets and is directly controlled by CTU. In addition, AFT and NEA have steered an additional $95,000 to NPE since 2015.

Schott Foundation for Public Education

The Schott Foundation for Public Education works in lockstep with AFT and NEA on three key areas. First, it provides grants to a network of anti-reform non-profits – from small local groups to national organizations like Diane Ravitch’s Network for Public Education. Second, as I noted in a 2017 op-ed in The 74, Schott organizes and underwrites trainings for its nationwide network of grantees, many of which focus on organizing and communications strategy. Finally, Schott engages in policy development and has published dozens of reports opposing charters, accountability, and standardized testing.

According to U.S. Department of Labor disclosures, Schott has received more than $1.3 million from the national teachers unions in the past five years, primarily from AFT. In fact, I recently wrote a blog post that revealed that Schott’s 501(c)(4), the Opportunity to Learn Action Fund, essentially served as a conduit for union money. Not only did ninety-nine percent of OTL’s revenue come directly from AFT and NEA, but it was used to underwrite several of the unions’ pet projects, including the anti-reform documentary “Backpack Full of Cash,” narrated by Matt Damon.

Voto Latino

Voto Latino is a nonprofit civic media organization that seeks to increase the involvement of Hispanic and Latinx citizens to become involved in the political process through voting and activism. Voto Latino is probably the least partisan group involved in the upcoming forum and hasn’t taken a strong position on education issues. It was founded in 2004 by the actress Rosario Dawson, who happens to be the girlfriend of Sen. Cory Booker, a rare pro-charter voice in the field of Democratic presidential candidates.

Still, Voto Latino has received at least $110,000 from NEA and $117,000 from the AFL-CIO.


Written by Peter Cook

Pete became involved in education reform as a 2002 Teach For America corps member in New Orleans Public Schools and has worked in various capacities at Teach For America, KIPP, TNTP, and the Recovery School District. As a consultant, he developed teacher evaluation systems and served as a strategic advisor to school district leaders in Cleveland, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jefferson Parish, Louisiana. He now writes about education policy and politics and lives in New Orleans.

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