Corrected: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García.
There are no misbehaving 2nd graders in sight, but teachers Molly Blankenstein and Missy Rhodes still have their work cut out for them: going door to door to get out the vote for Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in this neighborhood peppered with signs for her GOP opponent, Donald Trump.
The pair of Hayshire Elementary School teachers work off a list of registered Democrats from the campaign. But at least a couple of the voters they visit won’t commit to supporting Clinton. Another tells the teachers he’s sitting out the election altogether. And many of the people they’re hoping to talk to just aren’t home on a beautiful Saturday in October.
Blankenstein isn’t surprised—she lives just a few blocks away and knows most of her neighbors in this southern Pennsylvania town lean Republican. Still, she said, “I had to do something. It’s small, it’s tiny. It’s just a little stone in a big huge wall.”
But, by making sure the campaign sends voter-reminder cards to just a few of her Clinton-leaning neighbors, Blankenstein may be having more of an impact than she thinks, according to Patrick McGuinn, a political science professor at Drew University in Madison, N.J.
In fact, he said, teachers’ shoe-leather turnout efforts may mean more to Clinton than the millions in campaign cash donated by their national unions, both of which endorsed Clinton more than a year before the election.
“It’s very valuable,” McGuinn said. “There’s obviously a lot of talk about the high-tech stuff” like social media, but “it’s still good old grass-roots mobilizations that are the bread and butter of presidential campaigns,” such as phone-banking, voter registration, and voter outreach. “To do that kind of thing, you need bodies. You need people who are willing to get out there, and teachers’ unions are very good at being able to mobilize their members.”
Unions typically have backed Democrats over Republicans in presidential races, but the enthusiasm factor can vary and be important. Both the National Education Association—which Blankenstein and Rhodes belong to—and the American Federation of Teachers say they’re not having any trouble turning out the troops this election cycle, even though some of their members wish they had given more consideration to Clinton’s opponent in the primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, before endorsing her. In fact, the NEA reports that its volunteering numbers are about four times bigger than they were in 2012.
Rhodes and Blankenstein, who are volunteering for the first time this cycle, say they’ve never been so fired up about an election.
Blankenstein, who teaches 2nd grade, likes Clinton’s proposals to expand early-childhood-education programs and was happy to hear her say that teachers need to be paid more, even though she realizes the president can’t do much about salaries.
But, Blankenstein acknowledges, Trump is a big motivating factor for her. She is worried that his call to slash the U.S. Department of Education would mean fewer resources for schools like Hayshire, where about half the students come from low-income families. And she has concerns about what some of his rhetoric on immigration and other issues would mean for her students who are racial or ethnic minorities.
In fact, she’s so anti-Trump that she’s started refusing the doughnuts at staff meetings because they are from Maple Donuts, home to a prominent Trump sign. For her part, Rhodes, a 3rd grade teacher, sees a lot to like in Clinton’s education proposals. But she’d rather be voting for Sanders, who she supported in the Democratic primary. She thinks he might have been a stronger leader when it came to issues of economic equality. “I think Bernie got the raw end of the stick throughout this whole thing,” she said.
Still, Rhodes thinks that she’d be out campaigning for Clinton no matter who she was running against in the general election—but “maybe not with the fire of 1,000 suns.”
Rhodes is a big fan of President Barack Obama but doesn’t embrace everything he’s done on education, including his push for teacher evaluation through student-test scores. She thinks Clinton could end up being better on K-12.
Not all of Sanders’ one-time supporters are on the same page. Steven Singer, an 8th grade language arts teacher in Pennsylvania’s Steel Valley school district just outside Pittsburgh, pounded the pavement for Obama in 2008 and 2012. But he’s not volunteering this time around.
In fact, he may not even vote for Clinton—he’s trying to choose between her and Jill Stein, the Green Party nominee, who he met at a United Opt-Out event in Philadelphia. K-12 policy is part of the reason he’s wavering.
“I think it seems [Clinton] would be very close to the kind of education president Obama has been,” said Singer in a telephone interview. He supports Obama overall but has been unhappy with his approach on education. “I’m not sure that our public schools and our students can deal with eight years of more neo-liberal policies,” a basket that he says includes “market-based education reform, standardized testing, common core, value-added measures, Teach For America, charter schools.”
So far, such sentiments don’t seem to have had a big impact on the number of teacher volunteers turning out for Clinton. The NEA said about 40,000 of its members have volunteered this year as of earlier this month, up from about 9,000 in 2012. The AFT estimates that its members have filled 36,000 volunteering shifts, but couldn’t compare that figure with 2012’s because of a change to the way volunteers are tracked.
The NEA’s high turnout is partly because of the union’s improved ability to target which of its members are likely to engage in voter outreach and partly because Clinton has been talking about policies—like early-childhood education—that appeal to teachers, said Carrie Pugh, the NEA’s political director. But it’s also because so many of the NEA’s members worry about a Trump presidency, including his support for school vouchers.
The volunteering numbers come on top of the more than $14 million that the union has donated to candidates this election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization in Washington that tracks campaign spending. The AFT has donated about $6.7 million, according to the organization.
The union efforts could prove particularly important in Pennsylvania, a state both campaigns are targeting. And Clinton’s race against Trump isn’t the only major contest here.
In fact, the same weekend that Rhodes and Blankenstein were hitting the streets of York, the NEA and AFT descended on Philadelphia for a rally in support of Clinton and Katie McGinty, the Democrat who is running against U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican. After the rally, teachers canvassed in nearby West Chester.
The Clinton campaign sees educators as key “validators,” said Tyrone Gayle, a spokesman. Clinton, he said, will “launch a national campaign to modernize and elevate the profession of teaching, fight to educate our children for the future, and ensure they are supported inside and outside of the classroom.”
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request on the role teachers are playing in its outreach efforts.
But Trump is not without support in the teaching community. For instance, Darren Ray Waddles, a student at the University of Arkansas who is a student-teacher at Mountain View High School in Little Rock, Ark., said he’s voting for Trump, in part because he thinks Clinton would be too close to Obama on K-12 policy.
“The vast majority of teachers, none of them are happy with [Obama’s] policies” especially when it comes to the Common Core State Standards and standardized testing, Waddles said.
Randi Weingarten, AFT’s president, said she doesn’t necessarily see the unions’ support for Clinton as translating into particular policy victories down the line. “I do not believe in transactional politics,” she said. But she thinks the union—and teachers—would have an important voice in a Clinton administration, something Clinton said explicitly when she spoke before both unions.
The NEA’s Pugh said the union’s decision to endorse Clinton in the primaries—a step it didn’t take in 2008—has helped get members face time with the candidate and her advisers, including telephone-town-hall meetings and a “listening tour” with Ann O’Leary, Clinton’s top education adviser. Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen García, NEA’s president, are also listed among Clinton’s top education advisers.
Rhodes, for one, is hoping Clinton doesn’t forget the hours teachers are logging for her this fall if she makes it to the White House. “I hope she recognizes who has her back,” she said.
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A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2016 edition of Education Week as Union Teachers on the Stump