Watchdog Complaint Alleges Unethical Coordination Between Top Education Official, Teachers’ Union

Watchdog Complaint Alleges Unethical Coordination Between Top Education Official, Teachers’ Union
The U.S. Department of Education building is seen in Washington on July 21, 2007. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)
Samantha Flom

Federal watchdog group Protect the Public’s Trust (PPT) filed a complaint on Dec. 1 alleging that a top Department of Education (DOE) official gave “privileged access and undue influence” in the department’s policymaking process to the National Education Association (NEA), the teacher’s union where she was previously employed.

“As insidious as the teachers’ unions influence on the school reopening guidance was—unnecessarily keeping kids out of schools, which we now know resulted in tragic learning loss and mental health deterioration on an entire generation of students—it’s even worse than we thought,” PPT Director Michael Chamberlain said in a Friday press release announcing the complaint.

“[The DOE] and at least one high-ranking official appeared to have cast aside ethics obligations meant to protect the interests of the American public in order to push the unions’ agenda. This episode is one of the clearest yet to demonstrate that the American public’s all-time low trust in its government is entirely justified.”

In a Dec. 1 letter to DOE Inspector General Sarah Bruce and General Counsel Lisa Brown, Chamberlain laid out the alleged violations committed by DEO Deputy Chief of Staff Donna Harris-Aikens.

“Ms. Harris-Aikens’ apparent violations were discovered in communications obtained by PPT via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request and demonstrate an intimate working relationship between Ms. Harris-Aikens and the NEA over several months, starting from the very beginning of Ms. Harris-Aikens work in the Department,” Chamberlain wrote. “The frequency, depth, and tone of Ms. Harris-Aikens coordination with the NEA makes it worryingly unclear whether her role representing the NEA’s interests truly ended when she joined the [DOE].”

Prior to her current position, Harris-Aikens served eight years as the NEA’s director of education policy and practice before she was promoted to the role of senior director of education policy and practice. She spent two-and-a-half years in that position before joining the DOE in January 2021, where she started as senior adviser of policy and planning.

Noting that the Biden administration requires appointees to take an “Ethics Pledge,” Chamberlain charged in the letter that Harris-Aikens had violated the “revolving door” portion of the pledge, which states: “I will not for a period of 2 years from the date of my appointment participate in any particular matter involving specific parties that is directly and substantially related to my former employer or former clients, including regulations and contracts.”

According to Chamberlain, Harris-Aikens maintained regular contact with the NEA “from the moment she left to join [the DOE] about Department policymaking, received their input and feedback on draft policies—even receiving entire policy proposals from the NEA—and set up special briefings for the NEA to provide them privileged access to information on [the DOE]’s policies privately before they were made public.”

He added that Harris-Aikens did not appear to have sought approval for her “substantial and direct coordination” with the NEA from any ethics official.

Of the nearly 500 pages (pdf) of documents PPT’s FOIA request produced, Chamberlain outlined 10 instances of communication between Harris-Aikens and her former employer between January and September of 2021.

For example, on Jan. 24, 2021, Harris-Aikens contacted her former boss, NEA President Rebecca Pringle, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten to schedule a coordinating call with them, stating that the DOE “wanted to make sure you both have an opportunity to hear directly from the Department before any public activity.”

Other detailed communications related to special briefings to provide advanced knowledge of unreleased DOE and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) documents, as well as executive action proposals the NEA allegedly wanted the Biden administration to enact via executive order.

“These communications demonstrate that Ms. Harris-Aikens has had intimate involvement with the NEA from the beginning of her work with the Department of Education and continuing through at least September 2021,” Chamberlain contended. “It appears that Ms. Harris-Aikens has used her role at ED as a means for her former employer, the NEA, to have streamlined access to ED and advance notice and input on ED’s policy proposals.”

Requesting an “immediate and thorough” investigation into Harris-Aikens’ conduct, he added, “The American public deserves to be assured that political appointees are carrying out their duties in an ethical, impartial manner without favoritism toward their former employers.”

Responding to the allegations, a DOE spokesperson told The Epoch Times via email: “Donna Harris-Aikens is a committed public service professional who has dedicated her career to serving students, families and educators. She is a vital leader at the Department, with deep experience and an exemplary record of service.”

Samantha Flom is a reporter for The Epoch Times covering U.S. politics and news. A graduate of Syracuse University, she has a background in journalism and nonprofit communications. Contact her at [email protected].
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