Reporter’s Notebook

July 19, 2004 6 min read
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Lovefest for Kerry ...

Nothing is surprising about a Democratic presidential candidate addressing the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union. Except when he stood up the largest.

The 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers welcomed John Kerry to its convention July 16—eight days after the Massachusetts senator was supposed to have spoken to the 2.7 million-member National Education Association. The unions together are known for fielding a vast army of volunteers and paid staff in the run-up to a presidential election, always on the side of the Democratic candidate.


from the AFT’s annual meeting:

Excerpts from Sen. John Kerry’s Speech. (8:02; MP3 format.)

Christian Nze, special education teacher, Crispus Attucks Academy, Chicago. (1:35; MP3 format.)

Vera Weekes, assistant director, Caribbean Research Center, Medgar Evers College, New York. (0:48; MP3 format.)

Mr. Kerry did not appear on July 6, he told delegates to the NEA’s annual meeting by satellite hookup the next day, because he was caught up in the announcement of his running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina.

At the AFT’s biennial convention last week, he gave a speech that would have been equally apropos for the NEA, pledging if he is elected to match rhetoric about the importance of education with billions more in funding.

“You can’t create good schools on the cheap,” he said, criticizing the Bush administration for shortchanging its centerpiece education reform law by $27 billion. He said he would roll back part of the Bush administration’s tax cuts to better fund the No Child Left Behind Act and to rebuild crumbling schools.

The administration has repeatedly pointed to a record high in federal education spending and said there is enough money to carry out the measure.

Mr. Kerry named “three great challenges” related to education that he would take on as president: boosting teacher pay, making health care “more affordable and available,” and raising high school graduation rates.

“Pay for teachers today is a national disgrace,” he charged, echoing the words of newly elected AFT President Edward J. McElroy in a report on teachers’ salaries nationwide released at the convention.

But the candidate went on to outline changes that match up only in part with the unions’ preferences. While the AFT and the NEA generally favor paying people more for moving up a career-development ladder, they oppose rewarding teachers directly for their students’ achievement, both approaches Mr. Kerry advocated. He also put in a plug for “fast and fair procedures for removing teachers who are not performing,” a touchy issue for the unions.

"[Sen. Kerry] wasn’t pandering. ... I think he showed some guts,” said one longtime AFT staff member.

But the delegates were in no mood to take issue with the man who is challenging President Bush and warmly applauded his speech.

And Mr. Kerry seemed to make an even better impression afterward when he came down from the convention stage to stand at, and then climb on, the security barriers to reach his union supporters. With the rock group U-2’s song “Beautiful Day” blaring, he clasped dozens of hands and even cuddled a baby.

Many in the crowd left satisfied and happy. “It’s what the AFT believes in,” said Deb Sinnot, a teacher on special assignment in the Rush-Henrietta district of suburban Rochester, N.Y. “It gives you a boost, a spirit, hope.”

... And a Vote for Bush

Inside the Washington Convention Center, scores of delegates to the AFT convention donned blue John Kerry T-shirts in preparation for the candidate’s appearance that afternoon. On the sidewalk outside, one teacher stood alone for his rival.

Brenda Barrow, an elementary teacher in Norfolk, Va., held up a 4-by-5-inch hand-lettered sign reading: AFT MEMBER FOR BUSH.

Ms. Barrow said it was a spur-of-the-moment protest, though she had managed to dress in red, white, and blue topped off with an Uncle Sam stovepipe hat. Her T-shirt touted the White House incumbent.

The 25-year classroom veteran said she had decided on the one-woman demonstration after learning about the AFT’s endorsement of Mr. Kerry the night before. The news came to her from a fellow member of her local, the Norfolk Federation of Teachers, when she ran into him at a Washington restaurant. Ms. Barrow was in town accompanying her husband on a business trip.

“I did want people who drive by to see that not every teacher endorses Kerry,” she explained. Delegates on foot had flashed both thumbs-up and thumbs-down signs as they passed, she said. Some congratulated her for speaking out.

The AFT is “an educational organization, not political,” she contended, adding that it was fine for the AFT’s political action committee, which receives members’ donations for the express purpose of supporting candidates, to make an endorsement.

As for President Bush, said Ms. Barrow, who has been an activist on political and civic issues back in Norfolk, “in my mind, he’s done an excellent job with [the] No Child Left Behind Act.”

A lead mathematics teacher in her school, she said she saw teachers improving because of the provision in the law calling for them to be “highly qualified.” And she was proud that Norfolk schools like the one where she teaches, serving many children from poor families, are meeting the student-achievement targets mandated by the law.

Still, it was hot under the July sun, especially in a felt hat, and Ms. Barrow wasn’t expecting to change the world. She said she planned to leave in about another half hour, rounding off her quixotic quest for a nonpartisan union at roughly two hours and in time for lunch.

Keeping in Touch

A visitor to the convention might expect to see delegates from the 38 state affiliates and even delegates from the seven additional states in which the AFT has locals, but the Virgin Islands, or Guam? Scores of people don’t realize that the AFT represents educators in American territories as well. The Virgin Islands, for example, was represented at the convention this year by 20 delegates.

The conventions are essential for the delegates from the islands because of their geographical separation. According to Vernelle S. de Lagarde, the president of the St. Thomas/St. John Federation of Teachers, the distance causes the island’s educators often to lose out.

“Some of the benefits being offered to the members in the U.S. don’t trickle down to us,” said Ms. de Lagarde, such as mortgage incentives, some medical benefits, and even a voice in the union to speak to the issues that matter the most to them. Although they do receive assistance from their regional director—they are part of AFT’s southern region—being heard on the national level remains difficult, she said.

“But,” Ms. de Lagarde added, "[our local has] a lot of successes.” One is their miniQUEST, a professional-development seminar held every two years, during the off year of the AFT convention. “It’s known to be one of the best miniQUESTs in the AFT,” she noted.

No Time For Retirement

Although a number of delegates are chosen for each convention to serve as sergeants-at-arms, this was Nancy Lindsey’s first year in the prestigious position.

Ms. Lindsey, 70, joined the AFT in 1979 and has been a delegate from the Toledo (Ohio) Federation of Teachers for 15 years. Although the sergeant-at-arms job doesn’t leave any time for sightseeing, Ms. Lindsey still enjoys the convention. “I love meeting people,” she said.

A paraprofessional since 1967, Ms. Lindsey has worked for the past 24 years at the 120-student Mayfield Achievement Program, a secondary school for students with severe behavioral disabilities, and laughs at the thought of retiring. “I’m only 70; I’m not ready to retire,” she declared. “My mom worked until she was 89, so I have a few years left to go.”

Not only is she not ready to retire, she also has had one sick day in 20 years, which was for carpal tunnel surgery, and she returned to school the next day. “When I miss a day of work,” said Ms. Lindsey, “it’s like a chapter out of my life with those kids.”

When the AFT contacted the Toledo affiliate and asked the local to send a delegate to the convention as a sergeant-at-arms, Ms. Lindsey, who’s taken on the task at the Ohio Federation of Teachers convention, got the nod. Why her? “Because I’m good!” she jokes.

—Bess Keller & Catherine A. Carroll


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