Obama Finding Teacher Support Secure, If Tepid

By Alyson Klein — October 23, 2012 8 min read
Teacher Christy Howard gets a hug from President Barack Obama after introducing him at a late-summer campaign event at Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Teachers remain a key part of the Democratic get-out-the-vote effort, though differences over Obama administration policy has tempered the backing of some.
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Ask Antonio White what he thinks of Race to the Top—President Barack Obama’s signature K-12 initiative—and the Florida teacher will tell you the competitive-grant program is a “difficult pill to swallow.” Merit pay for teachers based partly on student test scores is “a joke,” he says. He’s also not a fan of expanding charter schools, or of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Still, Mr. White, like thousands of educators around the country, has spent months making calls and knocking on doors, trying to persuade voters to support a president with whom he has sharp disagreements on a host of issues central to his profession.

The 20-year classroom veteran says he’s grateful to Mr. Obama for pouring billions of dollars into saving teachers’ jobs and investing in early-childhood education. And he’s very worried about GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s plan to turn more than $25 billion in federal education funding for special education and disadvantaged children over to parents, who could then spend the money at any school they choose, including a private school. That could ultimately undermine the public system, Mr. White said.

“As far as education is concerned, [Mr. Obama] is the only hope we have,” said Mr. White, who teaches computer technology at Jose Marti MAST Academy in Miami-Dade County in a phone interview.

His outlook doesn’t come as a surprise to Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“I think it’s certainly the case that teachers and the unions are disappointed along several dimensions with the president, and with Arne Duncan, but when push comes to shove, there’s nowhere else for them to go, and they know it,” Mr. Henig said. “I expect them to be out there doing the [get-out-the-vote] job, just maybe not with as much bounce in their step as they have otherwise.”

Dampened Enthusiasm?

Educators remain a crucial part of the Obama campaign’s efforts on the ground. Earlier this year, the campaign organized a national group called Educators for Obama. It’s being led by Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden. She is a former high school teacher who now teaches English at Northern Virginia Community College.

The campaign was unable to say just how many teachers have joined the effort but noted that the group includes many union members, as well as early-childhood educators, community college teachers, and others. The campaign is partnering both with unions and with education-redesign-oriented organizations to find volunteers. Only one other profession—nurses—has a similarly structured organization within Obama for America, the president’s official campaign operation.

“We are seeing a lot of energy and enthusiasm” among teachers, said Buffy Wicks, the director of Operation Vote for Obama for America. “They serve as great messengers” for the campaign.

While there may be some policy differences between unions and the Obama administration, those disagreements haven’t been a stumbling block in recruiting teachers for get-out-the-vote efforts, she added. “We’ve been focusing on the things that unite us,” such as the need to keep class sizes reasonable and ensure students have access to college aid, Ms. Wicks said.

In fact, the 3 million-member National Education Association has seen an uptick in its roster of volunteers this time around, according to Sara Robertson, a spokeswoman for the union. In 2008, nearly 200,000 members were involved in Mr. Obama’s campaign in some way. This year, the number is closer to 500,000, Ms. Robertson estimates. The NEA also has 35,000 “superactivists"—also called Educators for Obama—who are especially engaged. And it has dispatched hundreds of members to serve as spokespeople, talking about the importance of the election for educators.

Members of the NEA are also reaching out to fellow teachers who have been identified as persuadable voters in politically critical states through a “social organizing program,” said Karen M. White, the union’s political director. And the union’s president, Dennis Van Roekel, traveled to the swing state of Iowa to campaign last week.

The American Federation of Teachers reports that it had more than 5,000 volunteers in 2008. This year there are more than 10,000. The union’s president, Randi Weingarten, was planning to take a bus tour of Ohio last week, helping to rally voters in a pivotal swing state for the president.

Get Out the Vote

Back in 2008, the 1.5 million-member AFT endorsed Mr. Obama’s opponent in the primaries, then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, while the NEA didn’t back a candidate in the primaries.

Both unions worked to support Mr. Obama in the general election against the GOP nominee, U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona, even though they disagreed with a number of his policy positions. By then, Mr. Obama and his team had built a formidable get-out-the-vote operation, largely without teachers’ union help, said Terry Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford University and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank, which is at Stanford.

Mr. Obama “didn’t owe [the unions] anything,” said Mr. Moe, whose book Special Interest: Teachers’ Unions and America’s Public Schools focuses in part on the role of unions in politics.

But that may change in Mr. Obama’s second term if the union get-out-the-vote effort proves critical in key swing states, helping to sway an election that’s shaping up to be much closer than the 2008 contest, Mr. Moe said. “They will all go out and get Obama re-elected and then they will turn around and say, ‘We supported you, we want you to come through for us over the next four years,’ ” Mr. Moe said. Still, he added, “It may not work. I think Obama and Duncan have made it clear that they support reform.”

Other Issues Key

Mr. White, the Florida teacher, said he doesn’t necessarily expect that the Obama administration would reverse course in a second term. While he’s noticed that some of his colleagues are less enthusiastic about Mr. Obama than they were in 2008, he’s urged them to look at the broader picture.

“There are people that are disenchanted with him at this point,” he said. But he added, “you can’t base your decision solely on education.” Mr. White, for instance, is a big supporter of Mr. Obama’s views on economic issues and the environment.

And Mr. Obama’s championship of a bailout for the automotive industry has been popular among union members in the critical swing state of Ohio, said Melissa Cropper, the president of the 16,000 Ohio Federation of Teachers, an AFT affiliate.

“He saved the auto industry,” she said. “I can’t emphasize how huge that is.”

She also credited the administration with supporting the unions’ effort to pass a ballot referendum overturning a new law that would have significantly curtailed teachers’ ability to negotiate over working conditions, wages, and benefits.

Still, the recent teachers’ strike in Chicago highlighted the rift between unions and the education redesign wing of the Democratic Party. The Chicago Teachers Union, an AFT affiliate, clashed with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Mr. Obama’s former chief of staff. At least one striking teacher held up a sign that read: “Democratic Party, Where Are You?”

No Time to Volunteer

At a recent meeting of the NEA-affiliated Fairfax Education Association, in Fairfax County, Va., another key state, more than half a dozen teachers reported that they were supporting the Obama campaign in some capacity, even as many of them voiced dissatisfaction with his administration’s decisions on K-12.

“I’m not happy with a lot of his policies, but he supports public education,” said Robin J. Rubio, a reading-resource teacher at Beech Tree Elementary School. “I just wish that he and his education secretary would listen to the people who know” what goes on in classrooms. Still, she added, “I canvassed, because when I saw what we were up against, I had to go with President Obama.” She’s particularly worried about potential cuts to federal education funding under a Romney administration.

But others say that they are coping with curriculum changes, a new emphasis on data, and a recent overhaul of Virginia’s teacher-evaluation system—policy shifts that appear to be linked in part to the Obama administration’s recent waiver for the state from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act. That has left them few spare hours for campaigning.

“I wish I had the time,” said Sean Cammaerts, a media specialist at Lanier Middle School in Fairfax County. “My workload is incredible.” Although he recognizes the administration’s role in recent policy changes, he doesn’t blame the president. “I see it as an outgrowth of [the NCLB law]. Everything Obama has done has been in response to a rock that’s already rolling downhill.”

Robert Smith, a special education teacher who heads up the Young Democrats Club at South Lakes High School, also in Fairfax County, said he “worked very hard” for Mr. Obama back in 2008, but doesn’t have as much time to devote to the campaign this year, in part because of what he sees as new demands on his professional time. And he’s noticed that fewer students are volunteering, too. Four years, ago, he said, 45 students at Mr. Smith’s school “worked very eagerly” for Mr. Obama. Now, there are about a dozen.

“That shows the difference in student enthusiasm,” he said.

But Mr. Smith is still planning to vote for the president, even though he finds himself at odds with the education secretary on areas such as teacher evaluation. Mr. Duncan has gone along with “the push from the right wing to try and hold teachers more accountable,” he said.

Still, the president’s views on education have helped steer Becky Sawyer, an Ohio 1st grade teacher, in Mr. Romney’s direction. Ms. Sawyer voted for Mr. McCain in 2008 but has supported Democratic candidates in other elections, she said in a phone interview. Under Mr. Obama, she said, teachers have been subject to more public criticism than ever before.

“I’ve seen my profession become basically a lot less supported,” said Ms. Sawyer, who works at Chippewa Elementary School in the 4,500-student Brecksville-Broadview City Heights district, near Cleveland. “It’s made a very difficult job even more difficult.”

Her vote isn’t based solely on K-12 policy. Mr. Romney, she said, is in a better position to improve the nation’s struggling economy and shares her views on some social issues.

And, when it comes to education, she said, “he can’t be any worse than what we already have.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2012 edition of Education Week as Obama Finding Teacher Support Secure, If Tepid


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