WASHINGTON--Sounding a range of economic and domestic themes in addition to their education platforms, three Democratic Presidential candidates appeared before the leadership of the National Education Association last month to seek the backing of one of the most influential forces in the campaign for the nomination.
The N.E.A., a key player in Democratic Presidential politics ever since it helped nominate and elect Jimmy Carter in 1976, kicked off its endorsement process by receiving Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, and former Senator Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts.
The three candidates addressed nearly 400 state-affiliate presidents, members of the N.E.A.'S board of directors, and officials of the union’s political and fund-raising arm on the upcoming election, which Keith Geiger, president of the N.E.A., said “will influence education reform for many years.”
Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of Virginia had expressed an interest in attending the N.E.A. forum, Mr. Geiger said, but scheduling conflicts prevented their appearance.
The two absent candidates joined Mr. Kerrey, Mr. Clinton, and Mr. Tsongas, however, in going through the other steps of the N.E.A. endorsement process, which include answering a questionnaire and being interviewed by Mr. Geiger about education issues. A 70-minute videotape of the interview sessions will be sent to state N.E.A. affiliates.
Another announced candidate, former Gov. Jerry Brown of California, was not invited to participate, Mr. Geiger said, because he was not determined to be a “viable” contender for the nomination.
Last October, the N.E.A.'s political action committee, known as N.E.A.-PAC, said President Bush did not warrant the organization’s endorsement.
The committee has invited Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative political commentator who last month said that he would challenge Mr. Bush for the Republican nomination, to participate in the endorsement process, Mr. Geiger said. The group has not extended such an invitation, however, to David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader and unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate from Louisiana who also has launched a Presidential campaign.
Kerrey: ‘Life and Death’
Mr. Kerrey told the N.E.A. officials that the education and health assistance he received after his experience in the Vietnam War was a key reason he was able to run for President.
“The American people reached out and gave me health care, gave me educational opportunities, and I was able to put myself back together,” said Mr. Kerrey, a decorated veteran who lost a part of a leg in the war. “This campaign is a life and death issue for me.”
Turning to specific proposals, Mr. Kerrey called for:
- A 0.15 percent business tax to raise an estimated $1 billion a year for education programs.
- A national health-care system that would ensure that students are ready to learn once they reach school age and that they continue to be healthy enough to learn.
- Elimination of the Education Department and consolidation of its functions and those of numerous other agencies into a Department of Human Services.
The consolidation would help the public see education “not as a special interest, but as a special need,” Mr. Kerrey said. “When you come to Washington and you have to go to 22 different agencies to get help for children, something’s wrong.” . Establish a program of national service, but make participation voluntary.
“Programs that begin by saying that service will be good for young people have it backwards. They’ve all been advocated by adults who have never been recruited or coerced to serve in this fashion,” the Nebraskan said.
Clinton: National Service
Mr. Clinton used some of the 15 minutes allotted each candidate to outline his proposal for a national service trust.
Under Mr. Clinton’s plan, students would be able to borrow for college and repay in two ways: over many years a little at a time, or through up to three years of national service at a reduced pay.
Service workers targeting such areas of national need as health and education, the Arkansas Governor said, “could revolutionize the social landscape of America.”
Speaking with reporters after his talk, Mr. Clinton said his program would not be mandatory.
Mr. Clinton also said that he opposed the use of public dollars to pay for students attending private schools under a parental-choice program similar to one put forward by President Bush.
The Governor did indicate, however, that he supports public-school choice “where there are protections against discrimination on the basis of race or income.”
In addition, Mr. Clinton proposed to provide more flexibility in the Chapter 1 program for the disadvantaged, create a national apprenticeship program for students who do not plan to attend college, and set up a national system to educate adults who cannot read and who have not graduated from high school.
Governor Clinton also pledged to work with the union in making education policy. “If I become President, you will be my partners,” he said. “I will not make education decisions without your help.”
Tsongas: Economic Emphasis
Mr. Tsongas, who has hammered away at economic themes during his campaign, said a strong economy goes hand in hand with a strong system of education.
“There can be no economic strategy that does not say that at the top of the agenda is education,” he said. “The Japanese understand it. The Germans understand it.”
The former senator said he supports choice programs because “everything should be tried and experimented.”
Responding to reporters after the sessions, Mr. Geiger said that he suspects all five of the Democratic candidates under consideration will support choice in some form. He warned, however, that the N.E.A. “is not going to look kindly upon candidates whose motive is to take public tax dollars and put them into private or parochial schools.”
A Treasured Prize
The union’s endorsement is a treasured prize for Democratic candidates. At the 1988 Democratic convention, about 7.5 percent of delegates and alternates were members of the N.E.A. (See Education Week, Aug. 3, 1988.)
Over the next several months, N.E.A. State and local affiliates will analyze the Presidential candidates and work to get members named as delegates to both the national party conventions to be held next summer.
The state affiliates will not be able to endorse candidates, but will provide the national association with their recommendations.
At some point--either before the primaries or after some candidate emerges as the likely winner of the Democratic nomination--Mr. Geiger will present N.E.A.-PAC with an endorsement. The N.E.A.-PAC council will then accept or reject Mr. Geiger’s recommendation.
The American Federation of Teachers also has begun its endorsement process, although the union’s executive council will not meet until next month.
A.F.W. officials plan to await an endorsement by the leadership of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. of which the union is a member, before making an endorsement, according to Rachelle Horowitz, the A.F.L.'s political director.
A version of this article appeared in the January 08, 1992 edition of Education Week as 3 Democratic Presidential Hopefuls Bid for N.E.A.'s Endorsement