For the nearly 500 teachers'-union members attending the Democratic convention as delegates here last month, the nomination for President of a Governor known nationally for his work in education and the adoption of a platform echoing the candidate’s detailed education agenda were causes for jubilation.
Teacher delegates, who formed a large and highly visible presence at the convention, hailed the selection of Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas as the party’s standard-bearer.
“I think teachers are so enthusiastic about him because he has a track record, and we think he’s really sincere about wanting to improve education,’' said Otheletta Orr, an elementary-school music teacher from Montgomery, W.Va., and a member of the National Education Association. “We believe it’s really important to him.’'
The N.E.A. had 373 delegates and alternates in New York, while the American Federation of Teachers had about 100. Members of the two unions made up nearly 10 percent of the 4,900 delegates and alternates, and no profession was better represented.
Although the unions have been a significant force in the Democratic Party since 1976 and provided a sizable bloc of delegates at the 1988 convention, teachers had a particularly high profile in New York this year. Their prominence reflected both Governor Clinton’s reputation as an education advocate and the early and loyal support he received from union members, many of whom backed him long before their organizations’ formal endorsements.
The unions’ standing in the eyes of the Clinton campaign was reflected in invitations to Keith B. Geiger, the president of the N.E.A., and Albert Shanker, the president of the A.F.T., to address the convention. Both unions also were represented on the committee that drafted the party platform.
Indeed, Mr. Clinton’s close ties to organized teachers may become an issue in the fall, with President Bush and his supporters already accusing the N.E.A. of having too much influence over the campaign.
Seeking ‘a Third Way’
In his acceptance speech, Mr. Clinton got an especially good response from delegates with his promise of “an America in which the doors of college are thrown open once again to the sons and daughters of stenographers and steelworkers.’'
Otherwise, though, the candidate did not dwell on his education record, instead focusing on his own humble origins and attacking President Bush’s claim to be the champion of “family values.’'
“I want an America where family values live in our actions, not just in our speeches,’' Mr. Clinton said.
He described his approach to government as a “new covenant, a solemn agreement between the people and their government, based not simply on what each of us can take, but on what all of us must give to our nation.’'
The platform calls it “a third way,’' rejecting “both the do-nothing government of the last 12 years and the big-government theory that says we can hamstring business and tax and spend our way to prosperity.’'
That philosophy is exemplified by Mr. Clinton’s proposal to offer welfare recipients education, training, child care, and health benefits, while also requiring them to take a job within two years. In terms of education policy, it means the platform calls on parents to take responsibility for their children’s education as well as promising government support for improving schools.
Both the platform and an economic plan released by Mr. Clinton last month call for a major federal investment in education, including full funding of Head Start and significant new spending on child-care and child-nutrition programs. The platform calls for attacking the “savage inequalities’’ between schools.
But the platform also explicitly supports “reforms such as site-based decisionmaking and public-school choice,’' and states that it is “not enough to spend more on our schools; we must insist on results.’'
The platform specifically attacks Mr. Bush’s choice plan and echoes Mr. Clinton’s education agenda, which includes a new student-loan system, apprenticeship programs, and national standards and testing. (See related story, page 1.)
‘The A.C.L.U. of 1992'
Even before the convention, Republicans were hurling charges that Mr. Clinton was a captive of the unions. Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander held a news conference specifically to make that accusation the day the N.E.A. formally endorsed Mr. Clinton. (See story, page 12.)
President Bush himself raised the issue twice during a July 21 appearance in which he touted his school-choice plan.
“Many that control the educational establishment in Washington are in the grips of a very powerful union, the N.E.A. And if you’ll excuse me one political comment, it seems to be an arm of the opposition party,’' Mr. Bush said. “This N.E.A. crowd is fighting any kind of change because they just like [the education system] the way it’s been.’'
At a meeting last month with reporters, Secretary Alexander declined to specify any policies Mr. Clinton had changed to win union backing.
Union leaders dispute the G.O.P. charges and note that Governor Clinton feuded for years with the Arkansas Education Association over his support for a teacher-competency test.
“He hasn’t parroted our agenda to get our support,’' Mr. Shanker said in an interview. “We’re supporting him because he has a real education agenda and a record to back it up.’'
“The sleaze merchants in the White House will do their best to make the N.E.A. the A.C.L.U. of 1992,’' Mr. Geiger told the N.E.A. delegates at a caucus the day before the convention opened.
Mr. Geiger was referring to Mr. Bush’s attacks on the 1988 Democratic nominee, Michael S. Dukakis, for his membership in the American Civil Liberties Union.
A version of this article appeared in the August 05, 1992 edition of Education Week as Teacher Delegates Turn Out in Force To Hail Clinton’s Record on Education