Teachers’ Aides Stump for Kerry Via Postal Route

By Bess Keller — October 20, 2004 4 min read
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Politics comes naturally to veteran teacher’s aide Kris Schwarzkopf, so it was no surprise that she answered her union’s call to organize support for Sen. John Kerry.

It was a surprise, though, when the dozen or so colleagues she had counted on grew to a crowd of more than 40, who then scribbled and chatted their way through 513 handwritten postcards urging their fellow paraprofessionals to take a serious look at the Democratic presidential candidate.

Ms. Schwarzkopf’s postcard party last month in Toledo, Ohio, is one of about 25 taking place this election season under the auspices of the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers, which has pledged its support to Mr. Kerry. It’s evidence, union leaders say, not only of members’ interest in the election but also of the important role that paraprofessionals—who usually take a back seat as activists to teachers—can play.

“Paras became very intrigued about how they could get involved” in the 2004 elections, said Jamie Horwitz, a spokes man for the AFT. “More than any other division of the AFT, they’ve put together a program for political activism.”

Missives to the Front

The program, devised in the summer by the union’s national staff, rests on two political points drawn from polling data, union leaders say. One, many paras fit the demographic description of one group that might be inclined to vote for President Bush—middle-aged women of modest incomes and education. Two, paras are more likely to listen to fellow aides than to others with whom they don’t have a job in common.

The postcard parties even answer the plea of aides in states with locked-up electoral votes to make a difference in the battleground states. Thus, at postcard parties in the Bronx borough of New York City and in Rochester, Syracuse, and Rye, N.Y., aides have written to their peers in the closely fought neighboring state of Pennsylvania. But other parties, such as Ms. Schwarzkopf’s in Toledo, were intrastate affairs.

Donald P. Green, a political science professor at Yale University who has extensively studied get-out-the-vote efforts, called the parties “a clever idea.” His research suggests that personal postcards should be considerably more effective in getting voters to the polls than a mass mailing, but less so than, say, telephone conversations between colleagues.

“Personal interaction does increase voter participation,” Mr. Green said. But he also cautioned that getting people to the polls is easier than persuading them to vote for a particular candidate.

The 2.7 million-member National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, has also put paraprofessionals to work using postcards. The NEA’s strategy targets some 55,000 “education support professionals,” who also include workers such as bus drivers, in Colorado, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, according to NEA spokeswoman Denise Cardinal.

The cards, which feature a few “message points” and space for a handwritten note, are being sent by colleagues in non-battleground states.

A spokesman for the Bush campaign responded somewhat wearily to the news that classroom aides had stepped up their campaign activities. “We’ve been on the receiving end of this so long,” said John P. Bailey, referring to the Democratic Party activism that characterizes the national teachers’ unions.

The Bush administration has pushed for and won “greater transparency for how unions spend their dues,” so that members can see the blatantly political activity they pay for, Mr. Bailey said.

Lost Jobs

Not much is needed by an AFT local to sponsor a postcard party. The national union in Washington provides the postcards, some sample messages, and a list of names and addresses representing aides who might be on the fence.

The cards get stamped and mailed in Washington. As of early October, almost 17,000 had been mailed out, according to Tish Olshefski, who heads the division of the union that serves paraprofessionals and other support workers.

Ms. Schwarzkopf said that she thinks her party proved more popular than she had hoped because paras in Ohio have made painful connections between the loss of thousands of educator jobs in their state and the cost to school districts of implementing the No Child Left Behind Act. The teachers’ unions blame those costs on the Bush administration.

Many aides also disdain President Bush’s support for charter schools that they say drain dollars from regular public schools. And like other Ohioans, the aides are concerned about manufacturing work that has left the state and gone overseas—a talking point of Mr. Kerry’s.

“A lot of paras have family members who are factory workers who have lost jobs because of closings,” said Ms. Schwarzkopf, 52, whose father was active in local Democratic politics.

That’s serious business, but the special education aide, who is on leave from her job to work for the Toledo Federation of Teachers through the Nov. 2 election, figured the party should be fun—thus the red, white, and blue balloons, the cleverly named food, and the raffle tickets earn ed by writing a certain number of cards.

Other parties have had themes: Tex-Mex food for a “Send Bush Back to Texas” bash or sweets for a “Give Bush His Just Desserts” get-together. Dishes range from “Chicken over Condoleeza Rice” to Boston cream pie in honor of Mr. Kerry’s home base.

At the party Ms. Schwarzkopf organized in mid-September, people in the end stayed not so much for the camaraderie or the food, she said, but because they were roused to the cause.

“I think as I talked about [writing the postcards], it kind of sank in that it is important,” she said, “and we need to all get on board and make a difference.”

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