The National Education Association is using this week’s Republican National Convention as a springboard to reach out to Republicans more than ever before, despite an endorsement earlier this year of Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts for president.
At an Aug. 29 meeting for Republican convention delegates who are members of the NEA, leaders of the teachers’ union sketched out efforts to work with Republicans and to highlight the contributions of GOP politicians to causes supported by the union.
“If in fact there’s one party in power, you’re foolish not to try to develop some sort of relationship with that party in power,” NEA President Reg Weaver told the group.
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Some 14 delegates attended the lunch at the Omni Berkshire Place Hotel with Mr. Weaver and other top NEA officials. At least 25 convention delegates and alternates are members of the union, said NEA spokeswoman Denise Cardinal.
The 2.7 million-member NEA, traditionally aligned with the Democratic Party, is working to make inroads with Republicans. Compared with about 25 NEA delegates and alternates here, the union had roughly 275 members at the Democratic National Convention in Boston in July.
At the caucus, union officials passed out bags that contained several sets of Dr. Suess books with instructions for delegates to share them with their state party leaders, so they can can donate them to local schools or libraries. The goal, said Randall J. Moody, the NEA’s chief lobbyist, is to forge new relationships with NEA members and top GOP officials.
The NEA has also purchased three full-page ads in the daily convention edition of National Journal, a weekly magazine for political professionals. Each one thanks Republican members of Congress who have co-sponsored different pieces of legislation or supported issues that affect NEA members. One ad, for example, thanks Republicans who have backed legislation for tax deductions for teachers’ out-of-pocket expenses. Another lauds those who support full funding of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which is now being considered for reauthorization.
Though the NEA has had a strained relationship with the Bush administration, objecting to many aspects of the president’s signature education law, the No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Moody said this GOP convention is about building bridges.
“This is more extensive than we’ve ever done,” he said. “Our relationship with the administration has been rocky but we have a lot of Republicans that we work with.”
Tweaking Education Law
While the union has criticized the No Child Left Behind Act and pushed for significant changes in the way it is implemented, most of the NEA Republicans at the caucus talked about tweaking the law and instead emphasized the intent behind it of bringing all students up to speed. Some seemed wary of criticizing the president’s key education achievement, which is expected to get a lot of attention this week. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, the official in charge of implementing the No Child Left Behind law, has a prime time speaking spot Tuesday evening.
“I want to commend the president and Congress on No Child Left Behind, but I want to caution them to make sure they don’t just make our schools test factories,” said Carl W. Toepel, a retired school administrator from Sheboygan, Wis. When pressed for his opinion of the law, Mr. Toepel said only, “The best run schools are those run locally without strings attached.”
Jane L. Alligood, a retired public school teacher from Washington, N.C., who now teaches at a Christian school there, called the law a “wonderful catalyst for education” and “a doable thing, not just a mandate.” But she added that “we certainly are in favor of local control.”
Jesse O’Hara, an alternate delegate from Great Falls, Mont., and a retired high school guidance teacher, was a bit more blunt.
“Are you doing anything to make them aware of some of the injustices and problems with the law?” he asked Mr. Weaver.
Mr. Weaver said he expected there to be a lot of talk at the convention about how successful the No Child Left Behind Act has been. “I expect to hear them say they’ve made great strides, that No Child Left Behind is working and those that don’t agree are trying to cause it to fail,” Mr. Weaver said.
‘A Ways to Go’
Despite the union’s efforts to reach out to Republicans at the luncheon, Mr. Weaver did not downplay the fact that his organization has endorsed Sen. Kerry for president. He said the rules of the NEA require presidential candidates to fill out an education-related questionnaire to be considered for endorsement. Mr. Bush and his campaign never submitted a response, Mr. Weaver said.
“The message to Democrats is don’t take us for granted,” Mr. Weaver said. “The message to Republicans is don’t write us off.”
But several delegates defended the president, saying the NEA has been so entrenched with Democrats that it’s hard for Republicans to look past that.
“Probably the reason the president didn’t respond was he probably figured, ‘What’s my chance for that endorsement? Maybe like an ice cube on a New York sidewalk,’” said Jerry D. Roe, a Michigan delegate who teaches American political systems at Lansing Community College. “We’ve got to get them off that image.”
Republicans in the room said they believed the NEA has done a better job of reaching out to their party and supporting GOP candidates where appropriate. For example, Mr. Weaver said, in 1996, the NEA endorsed one Republican candidate for the U.S. Congress. In 2004, the group is recommending 16.
And when the NEA backs a candidate, they don’t just provide lip service, said Mr. Moody, who happens to be a Republican. When Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania faced a tough Republican primary battle against conservative U.S. Rep. Patrick J. Toomey last spring, the NEA pulled out all the stops. Union phone banks placed calls to over 55,000 Republican members, and the national organization put out mailings, e-mails, and aired pro-Specter ads on the radio. The NEA’s political action committee also contributed $10,000, the maximum allowable under the law, to the campaign. Mr. Specter won the primary.
“They’re definitely making more of an effort,” said Mr. O’Hara, the Montana alternate, who is attending his fourth Republican convention. “They’ve got a ways to go but they’re making progress.”
On the day before the Aug. 30 opening of the convention, the NEA was only willing to go so far. Mr. Weaver had a group picture taken of the NEA delegates in order to show the rest of the organization that there are Republican members. But when first grade teacher Geraldine A. Sam of Lamarque, Texas, suggested the group organize a press conference to talk about their support of President Bush, Mr. Weaver balked.
“I’m going to be frank with you, girlfriend,” he joked with Ms. Sam. “I ain’t going to let you have no press conference to say you support the president.”