Top Department of Ed Official’s Cozy Relationship with Teachers Union Draws Watchdog Complaint

Top Department of Ed Official’s Cozy Relationship with Teachers Union Draws Watchdog Complaint

  • December 2, 2022
PPT alleges Deputy Chief of Staff coordinated with and gave privileged access in developing Department policy to her former employer

Today, federal watchdog Protect the Public’s Trust announced an ethics complaint against a top deputy of Education Secretary Miguel Cardona. Deputy Chief of Staff Donna Harris-Aikens appears to have violated the ethical obligations under the Biden Administration Ethics Pledge and applicable federal ethics regulations through her interactions with her previous employer, the National Education Association (NEA).

Ms. Harris-Aikens joined the Department of Education (ED) after working at the NEA for more than 14 years, serving in a senior leadership role as Senior Director of Education and Policy Practice for the last two-and-one-half years at the union. Despite the restrictions of the Biden Ethics Pledge, which prohibit political appointees from engaging in many official communications with their former employers, documents obtained by PPT via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request reveal Ms. Harris-Aikens was in regular contact with officials at the NEA from virtually her first moment at the Department.

Included in these communications are emails leading up to a February 12, 2021, joint Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and ED media call regarding school reopening guidance. The CDC was the subject of criticism for allowing teachers unions to exert undue influence in the development of this guidance. Ms. Harris-Aikens’ participation on the call was the subject of media skepticism due to her prior employment at NEA. One reporter asked her, “You have a long relationship with the NEA. Is your presence here, sort of, a sign to the unions, the NEA, the UFT [sic], that they should be less reluctant to reopen schools?” The FOIA documents PPT received reveal that such skepticism was justified.

Despite clear ethical restrictions, Ms. Harris-Aikens served an active role as go-between with Department and the two largest teachers’ unions, including her former employer. On January 24, she personally contacted her former boss, NEA President Becky Pringle, and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten to schedule a coordinating call with them, saying that ED “wanted to make sure you both have an opportunity to hear directly from the Department before any public activity.” On the day prior to the CDC-ED call and public release of the guidance, she sent an email to NEA and AFT officials seeking a time to “brief” both organizations by giving them advance knowledge about the unreleased documents from the CDC and the Department. “The hope,” Ms. Harris-Aikens said, “is to have both Becky [Pringle] and Randi [Weingarten] plus one or two key staff with the understanding that the conversation, information, etc. is on a strict confidential and embargoed status.”

“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,” stated Michael Chamberlain, Director of Protect the Public’s Trust. “ED 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.”