Gag Order Conceals NEA Influence in Washington

Published February 1, 1998

The actions of Washington state’s Public Disclosure Commission belied its middle name when, after finding the top executive of the local teachers union guilty of falsely identifying his employer on more than 100 occasions, the Commission levied a fine of only $6,000 and placed a gag order on its settlement negotiations with the union leader.

In a highly unusual, “closed-door” agreement, the Commission capitulated to a demand from Kathleen O’Toole, top legal counsel of the Washington Education Association, for the gag order on the Commission’s settlement with James Seibert, executive director of the WEA.

The charges of violating public disclosure requirements were brought against Seibert by the Evergreen Freedom Foundation. Despite being employed by the National Education Association for more than eight years, Seibert falsely identified his employer as the WEA on more than 100 separate public disclosure reports. He continued to misidentify his employer even after another NEA-paid lobbyist, Kristeen Hanselman, was fined for the same violation last August.

Seibert’s reporting offenses are only one of several charges alleged against the NEA by the Foundation, including the laundering of more than $400,000 through the WEA to affect the outcomes of state elections in 1996. The campaign to defeat the 1996 charter school and voucher initiatives was carried out with more than 90 percent of the funding provided by the NEA/WEA. Trained and paid by the NEA, Seibert oversees those political activities of the WEA.

“To deny the public the right to know when a huge, out-of-state special interest is dumping hundreds of thousands of dollars into our state to influence state policy is a violation of both the letter and the spirit of public disclosure law,” stated Evergreen Freedom Foundation president Bob Williams when the Commission’s ruling was issued on December 10.

Williams expressed disappointment that the state’s most powerful political force would be fined a mere $6,000 for years of false reporting, with $2,000 of the fine forgiven. “It will send a very bad message to other officials who are engaged in financial wrongdoing,” he said.

However, it may take more than a gag order and nominal fine to restore the WEA’s tarnished reputation. In a lead editorial, the Seattle Times, the state’s largest newspaper, blasted the WEA last August for its massive violation of state election laws in 1996. Those violations resulted in the defeat of the I-177 Charter School Initiative, support for which was led by Jim and Fawn Spady.

“Although Fawn and I were extremely disappointed when I-177 was defeated last November,” said Jim Spady, “it gives us some comfort to know that the prospect of a strong charter school law was enough to motivate the WEA to illegally divert at least $500,000 to the anti-charter campaign.”

Pennsylvania Commission Calls for Vouchers

Under a proposal recommended by a state education panel, students at Pennsylvania schools with low academic performance could be provided with “opportunity scholarships” to attend private or parochial schools, local bargaining agreements could be suspended, and day-to-day school operations could be contracted out to private firms. These and other proposals were offered in December to Pennsylvania lawmakers as a means of revamping the state’s urban education systems.

The 17-member Legislative Commission on Restructuring Pennsylvania’s Urban Schools was created last April as a bipartisan effort to evaluate the state’s 24 urban school districts. Led by University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg and comprised of educators, business leaders, and elected officials, the panel issued a 17-recommendation report for legislators. Among its recommendations are:

  • Permit the State Education Secretary to close “academically distressed” schools.
  • Require reading ability by the end of third grade.
  • Require proficiency in reading, writing, math, and science according to state standards in grades 4, 8, and 11.
  • End social promotion.
  • Require under-achieving teachers to improve or face dismissal.
  • Give principals more authority, but eliminate tenure.
  • Permit hiring superintendents without a background in education.
  • Provide alternative education for chronically disruptive students.
  • Split Philadelphia into 22 independent school districts.

Teacher union reaction to the Commission’s report was swift and negative. Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Ted Kirsch said it was clear to educators that the commission’s proposals were not about educating our children. “They’re about power and politics,” he charged. And vouchers, he said, would “siphon money from urban schools to help a few students and leave public schools impoverished and substandard.”