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Polls Prompt NEA To Shift Focus Away From Politics to Issues

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Washington

With the help of public opinion polling, the National Education Association has revamped its political wing to focus more on issues and less on partisan politics.

The 2.2 million-member teachers' union has long been subject to criticism for its close ties to the Democratic Party.

Leading up to the 1994 elections, the union donated more than $2 million to 365 Democratic congressional candidates, compared with just $26,000 to 13 Republicans.

But union officials say its political activism is now driven by three nonideological core issues that topped opinion surveys of its members and the public.

"We needed to take a look at what our members were thinking before the [1996] election," said Mary-Elizabeth Teasley, the NEA's director of governmental relations. "They don't want us to be partisan. They don't want us to be political. They want us to be advocates for children."

The union started to rethink its election and lobbying strategies after the 1994 elections, when Republicans captured control of both chambers of Congress, won a majority of gubernatorial seats, and took control of many state legislatures. NEA affiliates in several states took a political battering after the Republican victories.

"We were faced with a whole new set of committee chairs and without a means to move our agenda," Ms. Teasley said. "We made a decision to change how we operated politically and legislatively."

Critics, however, remain skeptical that the change is more than cosmetic.

"I'd say that's rhetoric," said Allyson M. Tucker, the director of the Individual Rights Foundation of the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, a conservative group based in Los Angeles that focuses on education and entertainment issues.

Data-Driven Campaign

The NEA's polling comes as public opinion research is increasingly influencing the national debate on education issues. (See story, page 1.)

Ms. Teasley declined to release data culled from the polling the union commissioned. But she said the polls showed that the NEA's members and the public had similar concerns.

So now, the union will formally judge candidates for federal office according to their records and platforms on protecting children's health and safety, preparing students for the jobs of the future, and strengthening public education.

"We're using this data to drive this election campaign, which is different than anything the NEA has ever done before," Ms. Teasley said.

This spring, the union sent questionnaires to candidates built around the trio of issues and a fourth--respecting the rights of school employees. The NEA has no plans to abandon its advocacy of collective bargaining and teacher job security, regardless of where these basic union concerns show up in surveys.

The NEA's 9,000-member Representative Assembly will vote next month in a secret ballot on a presidential endorsement, which will serve as the recommendation to all the union's members. (See box, this page.)

In moving toward a better-honed focus on issues, the union also has begun making overtures to the Republican Party.

For the first time, the NEA purchased a table--a donation to party coffers--at the Republican Governors' Association dinner in Washington this year.

It was also the only labor union to purchase a table at a dinner sponsored by the Republican Senate Campaign Committee, Ms. Teasley said.

And beyond the donations, the union recently commissioned an opinion poll of Republican voters and independents who lean toward the gop.

"We hope to use this as a way to find how we can work better with Republican candidates and voters," said Mickey Ibarra, the union's campaigns and elections manager.

The NEA plans to release the results at a news conference in San Diego during the Republican convention in August.

A Real Conversion?

But how much the new approach really changes the NEA's endorsement and lobbying process is unclear. Of the 185 congressional candidates the union had endorsed as of last week, 185 were Democrats. And no one expects the NEA to endorse anyone but Bill Clinton for president.

"We view these candidates openly and fairly and let the chips fall where they may in terms of labels," Mr. Ibarra said.

Jonathan Binkley, a teacher in Toledo, Ohio, who chairs the NEA's Republican caucus, sees some progress.

Officials at state and national affiliates have been more open to Republican politicians and to his caucus, he said.

"Keith Geiger [the NEA president] called me to talk about the Republican candidates in the primaries," Mr. Binkley said, "and no doubt if I called him on the same thing I would've gotten through."

But it will take some time to see if the union really loosens its ties to the Democratic Party.

"The real test will be after the 1996 election," Mr. Binkley said. "If the Democrats gain great prominence in Congress--say they win back the House and make gains in the Senate--what will the atmosphere be after that time?

"That's what I'm waiting for. It's sort of like a spiritual conversion where you wait and see how long it sticks."

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