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NEA Pushes Its Point in Outreach Effort at GOP Convention

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Officials of the nation's largest teachers' union came to the Republican National Convention here determined to make inroads into a party that often sees them as an enemy.

The National Education Association came not just to show bipartisan spirit but also to say public schools have broad support--even among Republicans.

Union brass spent the week of the Aug. 12-15 party gathering attending Republican fund-raisers. They hobnobbed with GOP governors. They attended a party honoring Haley Barbour, the chairman of the Republican National Committee. And they convened their own forum with state and federal Republican politicians.

Moreover, 34 union members served among the convention's 3,980 delegates or alternates--the most ever.

"We continued in our outreach to mainstream, moderate Republicans to demystify what the NEA is all about and to find out what their concerns are as well," said Robert F. Chase, the union's incoming president. He was joined by others including Mary-Elizabeth Teasley, the group's chief lobbyist, and Katherine Bell, a Republican member of the union's executive committee.

The union has long and substantial ties to the Democratic Party--some 400 NEA members were delegates at last week's Democratic convention in Chicago and their presence was felt everywhere. For its lopsided allegiance, the group has come under attack from Republicans, including presidential nominee Bob Dole.

But since the fall 1994 elections, which ushered Republicans into control of Congress and many state legislatures, the union has tried to revamp its political approach (See "Polls Prompt NEA To Shift Focus Away From Politics to Issues," June 19, 1996.)

News for Dole

The NEA presence was highlighted on the second day of the GOP convention when Mr. Chase and Linda DiVall, a Republican pollster who is advising the Dole campaign, unveiled poll results that showed Republican voters are in step with non-Republicans on education issues.

For example, 54 percent of the respondents said they opposed eliminating the U.S. Department of Education, while 34 percent favored its elimination. The Republican platform calls for abolishing the agency.

Given the choice of using tax dollars "to assist parents who send their children to private, parochial, or religious schools [or] to improve public schools," 61 percent said they preferred limiting tax dollars to public schools, while 30 percent said the money should go to various kinds of private schools.

The poll included opinions from a representative sample of 1,000 registered voters who identified themselves as Republicans. It was conducted between June 26 and July 3 and has a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.

Among other findings, 49 percent favored charter schools, while 37 percent opposed them; and 42 percent favored the hiring of private management companies to run public schools, while 48 percent opposed the idea.

Ms. DiVall said that Mr. Dole might reconsider his stance on education issues in light of the results, particularly if he wants to appeal to women voters--a group that accounts for much of President Clinton's lead over Mr. Dole in the current polls.

Building Trust

Union members who came here as delegates said they were pleased with the NEA's decision to reach out to Republicans.

"I'm optimistic that we're at least taking a step in the right direction," said Albert Fitzpatrick, a government teacher at Newport (Ore.) High School.

Several delegates remarked that while they support the GOP ticket, they are at odds with their party on such issues as cutting federal education spending and instituting school vouchers.

"I've been disappointed in the platform," said Karen Carter, a kindergarten teacher in the Dollaway school district in Pine Bluff, Ark. "As teachers, we need to be sure that [elected officials] hear from us."

Republican office-holders said in interviews that the NEA's San Diego overtures are only a small step. Years of mistrust must be broken down to reach a comfort level with the union, they said.

Better relations "are developing state by state with a lot of Republican governors," Gov. Terry Branstad of Iowa said. "Maybe it can happen at that level before the national level."

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