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Endorsements Still Touchy for Teachers’ Unions in Presidential Election Season

Members want in on decisions
By Madeline Will — March 23, 2020 5 min read
Supporters cheer as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally at the Chicago Teachers Union headquarters, in September in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

After complaints from members who felt shut out during the 2016 presidential primary endorsement process, the national teachers’ unions vowed to better engage members in this year’s process. Have they succeeded?

The stakes are high: Endorsements from the teachers’ unions bring campaign cash and hefty volunteer muscle in what will likely be a bruising campaign against President Donald Trump.

The Democratic presidential-primary field has narrowed down to two people: former Vice President Joe Biden, who is currently leading in the delegate count, and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

Earlier this month, the 3-million-member National Education Association, the largest labor union in the country, announced that it was endorsing Biden for president. In a statement, NEA said its members “have led the recommendation process and have engaged in unprecedented fashion.”

“Biden is the tireless advocate for public education and is the partner that students and educators need now in the White House,” said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García in a statement. “Now, with so much at stake in this election, educators are determined to use their voice to propel Joe Biden to the White House.”

And on Sunday, the American Federation of Teachers endorsed Biden, too. In an interview before the endorsement, AFT President Randi Weingarten said the chosen candidate would have to share the AFT’s values (which both Sanders and Biden do, she said), have a “real path” to defeating Trump in the general election, and reflect the consensus of its 1.7 million members.

“We have done so much with our members to really revamp our process,” Weingarten said.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the United Federation of Teachers’ annual Teacher Union Day in New York in October 2019.

AFT officials have held more than 300,000 interactions with members through town halls, presidential forums, regional meetings, and local affiliates’ engagement efforts since starting the endorsement process last year, she said, as well as polled members to understand their views.

The AFT also commissioned Hart Research to do a telephone survey last week of 1,207 members who are Democratic primary voters. The survey found that 60 percent of respondents favored Biden and 30 percent favored Sanders. Three-quarters of the respondents view Biden positively, the survey found.

During the 2016 race, both teachers’ unions endorsed Hillary Clinton for president very early on—the AFT in July 2015 and the NEA in October of that year. The decision angered many members of both unions, who felt like they had been left out of the process and wanted more consideration given to Sanders, who was in contention in 2016 as well.

Union leaders say that this time around has been different: Members have had more opportunities to get involved and voice their opinions. But some teachers say they still feel disillusioned with the endorsement process.

“This just feels like a repeat of what happened [in 2016],” said Michelle Voelker, an 8th grade teacher in Sacramento and an NEA member. “The rank and file were not asked who they wanted to support.”

Weighing the Choices

At the start of the campaign season, the NEA created a website where members—and the general public—could submit their questions for the union to pass along to the candidates during town halls and interviews. Eskelsen García did video interviews with eight candidates, including with Biden and Sanders.

To make the final endorsement for the primary, the NEA PAC Council, which is made up of state representatives and the union’s executive leaders, put forward a recommendation for consideration by the NEA board of directors. An NEA official said 98 percent of the PAC Council and 78 percent of the board of directors supported recommending Biden.

Meanwhile, in February, before Super Tuesday’s round of state primaries this month, the AFT’s board of directors voted to encourage its state and local affiliates to “support, be actively involved with, or endorse” Biden, Sanders, or Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who later dropped out of the race.

Weingarten, who then endorsed Warren in her personal capacity, said state and local union leaders appreciated the ability to make their own recommendations ahead of the national union. For example, Chicago Teachers Union President Jesse Sharkey and Vice President Stacy Davis Gates have personally endorsed Sanders, while New York City’s United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew backed Biden.

Still, some members felt like equal weight was not given to all the candidates.

“It was abundantly clear that even though we were being told that AFT is endorsing all three candidates, ... the push was for Warren or Biden,” said Robin Brownfield, a retired college professor who had been a member of the union for nearly 30 years.

“I’ve never been very pleased with AFT’s strategy regarding elections and endorsements because in all the years I and my husband have been members, we’ve never ever been asked what we think,” she said. “We’ll go to meetings, he’ll go to meetings [now], and be told who we’re campaigning for.”

Candidates’ Stances

Although both Biden and Sanders have a good amount of support from teachers, Sanders has said that teachers are among the most common workers to give to his campaign.

Dylan Toth, a sophomore at Illinois State University and an “Aspiring Educator” member of the NEA, said he thinks Sanders’ education platform is more aligned with NEA’s values than Biden’s plan.

“Joe Biden supports teachers, but that’s about as far as his plan goes,” he said. “There’s no real structural plan.”

Sanders has promised to pay teachers a minimum of $60,000 a year, to triple Title I funding aimed at disadvantaged students, and to place significant restrictions on charter schools, including a ban on for-profit entities running the schools.

Biden’s education plan would also triple Title I funding, and districts would have to “offer educators competitive salaries” to access the expanded funds, although the plan doesn’t set out a minimum salary. Biden, who has called for more accountability and transparency of charter schools, has also pledged to nominate someone with teaching experience as the U.S. secretary of education.

Biden’s education plan has appealed to Lisa Mikolajczyk, a high school special education teacher in Florida and an NEA member who is happy with her union’s endorsement.

“He has a history of getting results,” she said, adding that Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, is an NEA member. “Joe Biden has always been supportive of public schools, and public school teachers.”

Meanwhile, Mikolajczyk said she doesn’t “trust Bernie to follow through with anything. ... He’s not willing to compromise, and you need to be willing to compromise to get things passed.”

Despite his disappointment about the NEA’s pick, Toth said he sees the political advantage of the teachers’ union making an endorsement early: “If we are in good standing with Biden, we could almost be in his ear” about education policy, he said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 2020 edition of Education Week as Endorsements Still Touchy for Unions in Election Season

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