There are more than 20 candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. One way to get an edge: Secure the endorsement of one, or both, of the teachers’ unions, National Education Association and the American Federation for Teachers.
The NEA though, isn’t in any rush to pick a horse, Lily Eskelsen García, the president of the National Education Association, a 3 million-member union in a call with reporters.
“We have 22 candidates to consider, some of them with a very strong background in fighting for public education, fighting against privatization of our public schools, and respecting the voice of teachers. So it’s a different race, it’s a different dynamic. Every race is every different. This one is like, out of the ballpark different,” she said. “We know that one of the best things you can do as an educator is to make sure people have all the information they need. ... There is a big decision for them to make on who we will decide to eventually support over others, over other friends.”
The NEA has had a bumpy road on endorsements in recent presidential cycles. In 2008, the union didn’t make a pick during the primary—only to see President Barack Obama, who officials endorsed in the general election—spend most of his two terms championing policies they didn’t agree with, like teacher evaluation through test scores.
And in 2016, the union came out strong and early for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, only to have rank-and-file members furious that the leadership didn’t give enough consideration to her main opponent in the primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. (Sanders, an independent who caucuses with the Democrats, is back in the contest this time around.)
This time around, the NEA has created a website, Strong Public Schools 2020, where teachers—and the general public—can compare and contrast different candidates, as well as submit questions for the union to pass along to the contenders on social media, during town halls, and in person. Candidates who want the NEA’s seal of approval will have to submit to a video interview and fill out a detailed questionnaire on their views.
Eskelsen García said teachers are having a bigger impact on public policy than they have in years, thanks to the #RedforEd movement. Strikes in red states—like Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia—and in deep blue cities like Denver and Los Angeles have led to more money for salaries and classrooms, and some policy changes.
“They now know their power,” she said. “It’s up to us to harness and focus that power, and we’re going to be doing that earlier than we’ve ever done in this campaign.”
Already, presidential candidates seem to be courting teachers—if not their unions, specifically. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., made a plan to raise teacher pay by an average of more than $10,000 a year her first policy proposal out of the gate. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., floated a plan to improve infrastructure, including in crumbling schools. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., pitched a new universal child-care initiative.
National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García on U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos: “The bottom line is there is no reason to trust this woman."—J. David Ake/AP-File