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NEA Members Say They Have a Mind of Their Own on How To Vote

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Anderson Township, Ohio

The National Education Association is running into resistance and skepticism from its own members in this predominantly Republican suburb.

While the union wins points as a bargaining operation and shows promise as a clearinghouse on education issues, its political activities appear to impress few of its dues-paying constituents.

"People are going to vote the way they're going to vote," said Richard Farrell, the president of the Forest Hills Teachers Association and a music teacher at Anderson High School here. He plans to vote for President Clinton, but the NEA's recommendation has not been a factor in that decision. "Because the NEA endorses Clinton, it's not going to change anybody's mind."

"If you're definitely committed, you're not going to be swayed" by the NEA, added Mary Nemeth, a 3rd grade teacher at the Forest Hills district's Ayer Elementary School, who calls herself one of two Democrats on the school's staff of 35. She also plans to vote for Mr. Clinton.

The NEA is trying to play down its role in partisan politics, its national leaders say. It no longer endorses candidates; it recommends that members vote for them. It has removed party labels from its campaign materials and is writing the literature to focus on issues, rather than political ideology, said Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the NEA's director of government relations.

"Our polling shows this is exactly what our members want," Ms. Teasley said.

A Credibility Problem

But the union's history of throwing most of it support to Democrats leaves some of its members dubious of whether the NEA will offer them an unbiased political view.

John Farmer, a 5th grade teacher at Ayer Elementary, said he doesn't believe the NEA would offer fair comparisons of candidates the way the League of Women Voters does.

"I pretty much know where they're going to be before they publish it," Mr. Farmer said. "I tend not to trust people who are pushing information, and I tend to seek the information myself."

Besides, the NEA's stands don't always match individuals teachers' positions, said Dee Dee Hamlin, a music teacher at Ayer Elementary.

While the NEA staunchly opposes private school vouchers, Ms. Hamlin, a Republican, said such a system "will be healthy for public schools to stay on their toes." And she disagrees with the union's defense of the U.S. Department of Education, which presidential nominee Bob Dole and other leading Republicans favor abolishing.

"If we could put this back into the hands of the state and local government, we might have better standards," she said. "The federal government has not been effective in raising the standards."

Ms. Hamlin said she belongs to the union for the salary and benefits it negotiates for her. "I feel if the union is going to do something for me, I should pay my dues," she said. "If we were allowed to belong to the local union [only], I think they would be in real trouble."

Other GOP-minded teachers refuse to join the union, Mr. Farrell said.

"I'm not sure we're doing ourselves any good taking stances," he said. "As soon as you take a stance, you're going to tick off a certain percentage of your members."

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