N.E.A. Political Committee Targets House 'Boll Weevils'
Washington--The nation's largest teachers' union last week tentatively targeted seven Republicans and six Democrats for ouster from Congress in 1982 and put several others "on probation," while urging its 1.8 million members to demonstrate their commitment to political action to promote public education.
These actions, taken by the National Education Association (nea) at its annual legislative conference here, signal the growing sense of political urgency among the group's local and national leaders, they acknowledged.
The association achieved its highest level of national political visibility and influence last year, as its members worked diligently--if in vain--to re-elect President Jimmy Carter. This year, however, the association is regarded by conservatives in the Reagan Administration and the Republican-controlled Senate as a symbol of the ills of public schools.
With that changed political climate a clear concern, the organization's state representatives agreed on the need to form a national strategy to protect public education from the "detrimental effects of Reaganomics and the increasingly potent religious right wing."
Members were urged to take steps to im-prove public education's image with the media, to form coalitions with other public education groups to resist tuition tax credits, and to take action to discourage the so-called "boll weevils"--Democratic Congressmen who have supported the Reagan Administration's efforts to slash domestic spending--against further efforts to break party ranks.
For the first time this year, the nea national leadership has analyzed the voting records of Congressmen, with an eye to recommending specific candidate endorsements at the state and local levels, nea officials said.
Included on a list of incumbents to be closely monitored through the
remainder of the current Congress are several conservative Democrats.
Those targeted for defeat by the nea Political Action Committee
(nea-pac) are Representatives Larry McDonald of Georgia, W.J. Tauzin
and John B. Breaux of Louisiana, Beverly Byron of Maryland, and
Leath of Texas. The Republican House members targeted are: Thomas B. Evans Jr. of Delaware, George Hansen of Idaho, Henry J. Hyde of Illinois, Guy Vander Jagt of Michigan, Marjorie Holt of Maryland, Tom Hagedorn of Minnesota, and James G. Martin of North Carolina.
Kenneth F. Melley, nea director of political affairs, told conference participants, however, that the list could undergo considerable change between now and next July, when the association makes it official endorsements.
Decisions about which candidates to oppose and which to support will be based on the nea's legislative agenda, approved by the membership last summer, officials said. The highest priorities on that agenda involve resistance to three Reagan3campaign proposals: tuition tax credits, the dismantling of the Department of Education, and the reduction of the federal role in education through budget reductions and block grants.
Many of the conference delegates stressed that they considered each of these legislative battles to be a part of what they described as "the larger and more destructive force"--religious conservatives.
"The radical right is the thread that ties all of the separate issues together," said Cordell Affeldt, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. "People with children in school have no experience to tell them that those scurrilous lies are untrue. If the idea spreads that public education is not worth sinking money into, eventually it will be impossible to attract good people."
The conference, nea officials and participants agreed, symbolized a ''political coming of age" for the nea itself--an organization that had never endorsed a Presidential candidate until 1976. Now, admittedly on the defensive following the political setbacks of 1980, the union is determined to strengthen its political influence in time for the 1982 and 1984 elections.
The clear message emerging from conference discussions is that--in an era when the Democratic party, with which the union has been closely associated, is politically weak--public-school teachers should become aware of the new political realities and modern political methods. The identification of the nea with cynicism and liberalism, Mr. Melley argued, is destructive.
Cynicism, he said, leads to low voter turnout, which in turn leads to conservative decisions at the polls. "We can't afford to be cynical," he said. "We must get angry and replace cynicism with systematic political activity."
Mr. Melley also pointed out to the delegates that "political parties aren't what they used to be," and he suggested that overly close identifi-cation with either the Democratic Party or the political left would no longer be advisable. Because the 2,551 political-action committees formed since 1974 now contribute 25 percent of all the funds given to political campaigns, traditional party loyalty has declined, according to Mr. Melley. As a result, he said, nea members should not represent the union's agenda as a liberal agenda.
He also claimed that, compared to the fund-raising records of the conservative political-action committees, members' contributions to nea--pac have been "dismal." Donations totaled only $419,000 in 1980, far short of the $3 million required to influence just the closely contested races, he said. The group's goal is to solicit $10 from each association member, he added.
In spite of nea activity at the national level and the obvious support and enthusiasm of state union officials, there was considerable skepticism among the participants in last week's meeting about the possibility of changing the "traditionally apolitical habits" of teachers. State representatives reported difficulty not only with fund raising, but also with involving members in any voluntary political activity.
Some claimed that unless teachers are personally affected by conservative political activity, they do not perceive the threat as being serious. According to Lona Lewis, president of the Missouri branch of the nea, conservative political activists have been successful in capitalizing on problems confronting public education--declining test scores and discipline problems, for example. To combat this, Ms. Lewis argued, teachers should stress public information rather than direct combat with the political right.
"Once their attack on public education is full blown, it becomes illogical, and you can no longer fight it with logic," she said. "We have to get ahead of the game, open up to the community and admit that we have problems. We have to be more honest with the public."
The association's recommendations for political strategies go far beyond such sentiments, however. They call for local affiliates to form speakers' bureaus and to learn and use modern polling and direct-mail techniques. Leaders urged teachers to become involved in everything from voter registration to candidate recruitment and, in general, to commit themselves to constant and vigorous political activity.
To encourage such activities, nea-pac unveiled its latest effort: a series of political-training manuals for use in regional, state, and local activities. The manuals give advice on such tasks as "How to Conduct Opinion Polls" and "How to Recruit, Organize, and Manage Volunteers."