Teaching Profession

As Some Union Affiliates Back Candidates, NEA Sits Tight

By Sean Cavanagh — January 14, 2004 6 min read
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Early one recent Sunday morning, with her children sound asleep, Sandra Moore left her house on a mission. She made a quick drive through town, pulled up beside a local community center, and minutes later sat face to face with a visiting presidential candidate.

Election 2004

“What’s your opinion of No Child Left Behind?” Ms. Moore, a reading teacher at Howe Elementary School in Ogden, asked U.S. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, D-Mo., at a campaign stop late last month.

At low-key candidate speeches and raucous campaign rallies, teachers and union members like Ms. Moore (who walked away with an answer that day) have shown a determination to play a major role early in this year’s presidential election, from Iowa’s Jan. 19 caucuses through the string of state primaries that follow.

Their resolve stems not only from concern over the direction of federal education policy, but also from such day-to-day worries as rising health-care costs and shriveling school budgets.

Teachers and union leaders in several states say their members have been similarly galvanized this election cycle—even if their labor organizations have taken different approaches in deciding whether to endorse any of the nine Democratic candidates who are vying to challenge President Bush in November. Teachers’ unions traditionally have been strong backers of the Democratic Party.

The National Education Association’s New Hampshire affiliate, which has 14,000 members and is the state’s largest teachers’ union, officially recommended former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean to its rank and file last month—the first time the New Hampshire union has ever officially backed a candidate in that state’s venerable presidential primary.

Meanwhile, the NEA’s largest state affiliate, the 335,000-member California Teachers Association, came out with an endorsement of Mr. Dean in October. Both state unions cited the candidate’s condemnations of President Bush’s signature No Child Left Behind Act in those decisions.

Yet the NEA affiliate in Iowa has decided not to endorse a candidate in next week’s Democratic caucuses, a decision some teachers say reflects the fact that political support is scattered among several candidates here.

Leaders of the 32,000-member Iowa State Education Association reasoned that they could do more to help the eventual Democratic nominee defeat President Bush—whom they have decided they cannot support—by not favoring any one contender before the caucuses, the union’s president said.

That neutrality should not be mistaken for apathy, said John Hieronymus, the president of the Iowa NEA affiliate. He predicts a stronger turnout of Iowa teachers during this year’s caucuses and general election than in any presidential race in recent memory. What’s more, he asserts that his union’s election-time power equals or exceeds that of any other labor organization in the state.

“We have members in every single district in this state,” said Mr. Hieronymus, who is on leave from a high school teaching position in the 11,000-student Iowa City Community school district.

Health-Care Concerns

Iowa’s likely caucus-goers include Ms. Moore, 50, who was worried about the impact of the No Child Left Behind law and was open to Rep. Gephardt’s ideas for fixing it. Mr. Gephardt voted for the measure in Congress. But he told Ms. Moore the Bush administration was underfunding the law by as much as $7 billion a year—a charge echoed by several of his rivals— and said more flexibility was needed in enforcing it.

“When you get to the point where you’re teaching to the test, that’s not a good outcome, and it’s not what we had in mind,” Mr. Gephardt told Ms. Moore and the audience of about 25 others at the Leonard K. Good Center in Ogden, on Dec. 21. “There’s got to be better local input into what the standards are and what to test or measure.”

That message of modifying the law, and not necessarily discarding it, appealed to Ms. Moore. “In theory, the ideas are good,” she said after Rep. Gephardt’s talk. “It just isn’t quite feasible.”

Not all of her concerns derive from federal education policy. Over the past few years, the veteran teacher said, her pay raises have not kept up with hikes in health- insurance costs. Even with more than 25 years of teaching experience, she wonders when she can afford to retire.

Ms. Moore, who grew up on a bean, corn, and livestock farm, listed several reasons she is supporting Mr. Gephardt, some rooted as much in persona as policy.

“He’s down to earth, with Midwestern values,” she said. “You can feel his sincerity.”

Some backers of Mr. Gephardt also cited his reputation as a friend of organized labor, and their familiarity with him from the 1988 presidential campaign, when the Missourian finished first in the Iowa caucuses. But one teacher and union member, Jean Seeland of Waterloo, was looking beyond the Iowa caucuses in supporting Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts as the Democrats’ standard- bearer.

“The real battle is to beat George W. Bush,” said Ms. Seeland, a 1st grade teacher. “Kerry’s military record will help with that.”

NEA Interviews

Many teachers, however, returned to Mr. Dean’s early, strong opposition to the No Child Left Behind act as a reason to back him. (“On Trail, It’s Dean vs. No Child Left Behind Act,” Nov. 12, 2003).

The former governor’s strong rhetoric against the federal law “really does appeal to educators,” said Linda M. Nelson, an elementary school teacher and union member from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Mr. Dean “has no ownership in that law,” she said, “and the other candidates do.”

Terry Shumaker, the executive director of NEA-New Hampshire, cited Mr. Dean’s position in recommending him over the other Democrats, particularly Rep. Gephardt.

“He had a very good interview with us, but he voted for the law,” said Mr. Shumaker said of Mr. Gephardt. The four other Democratic contenders who serve in Congress—Sen. Kerry, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut, and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio—also voted for the law.

Retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark, running as an Arkansan, and Sens. Edwards and Kerry all received endorsements or recommendations from NEA affiliates in their respective states.

The NEA, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, with 2.7 million members, invited all the presidential contenders, including President Bush, for interviews and produced a list of “acceptable” candidates, or those it suggests its members should consider supporting. State affiliates, though, have the freedom to endorse whomever they want. Some NEA affiliates, such as New Hampshire’s, say they “recommend” candidates rather than endorse them as a way of telling members that the union leaders’ suggestions are not binding.

NEA national officials said they could not support either Sen. Lieberman, because of his backing of school vouchers and his explanation of his position on the No Child Left Behind law; or President Bush, who did not complete the interview process. The union has not yet issued a national endorsement of a Democrat this primary season, though it traditionally endorses the Democratic nominee in the general election.

Meanwhile, the 1.2 million-member American Federation of Teachers does not allow its state or local affiliates to endorse candidates until the national union has made a choice, union spokeswoman Janet Bass said. The national AFT has not yet endorsed a candidate in the 2004 race, and Ms. Bass said such a move would not occur before the Iowa and New Hampshire votes. The New Hampshire primary is Jan. 27.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as As Some Union Affiliates Back Candidates, NEA Sits Tight

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