Teaching Profession

Citing Experience and Record, AFT Endorses Kerry

By Sean Cavanagh — February 11, 2004 4 min read
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Citing John Kerry’s support for workers’ rights and his personal accomplishments outside politics, the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers last week endorsed the Massachusetts senator for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts speaks last July to an American Federation of Teachers conference in Washington. The union last week endorsed him in the Democratic presidential race.
—Photograph by Allison Shelley/Education Week

In lending the AFT’s collective voice to the buoyant Kerry campaign, leaders of the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union pointed to the candidate’s pledges to reduce class sizes, bolster teacher recruitment and retention, and channel more funding into the No Child Left Behind Act.

The union delivered its endorsement Feb. 4, one day after Mr. Kerry won five of seven races in state Democratic primaries and caucuses. One AFT official predicted that the union’s support would give the senator early momentum in a general-election battle against President Bush, assuming Mr. Kerry goes on to become the Democratic nominee.

“If you look at where our membership is strongest, it’s in battleground states,” AFT spokesman Alex Wohl said.

The endorsement was based on a unanimous vote of the organization’s 40-member executive council, which convened in Florida last week. The decision was based partly on candidate responses to questionnaires, as well as feedback taken from state and local AFT members, Mr. Wohl said.

The union backing also came only days before the Feb. 7 caucuses in Michigan, traditionally a bastion of organized labor. Leaders of the AFT’s Michigan affiliate said they would work to inform their 35,000 members of the national organization’s endorsement.

Sen. Kerry had already secured the endorsement of the 157,000-member Michigan affiliate of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, on Jan. 30.

The national organization of the 2.7 million-member NEA has not yet endorsed any of the Democratic candidates. It could issue such an endorsement as early as Feb. 12, when its political committee will meet, but it has no immediate plans to do so, said Daniel Kaufman, an NEA spokesman.

“I will make teachers a priority,” Sen. Kerry said in a Feb. 4 statement after the AFT’s endorsement. “Everything we know tells us that good teachers make all the difference. But our teachers are drowning in praise from politicians while they’re parched for the support they need.”

Taking Labor From Dean

Over the past two months, a number of state affiliates of teachers’ unions had rallied behind the candidacy of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean. The New Hampshire NEA affiliate recommended Mr. Dean before that state’s Jan. 27 primary, where he finished second behind Sen. Kerry.

In October, Mr. Dean also won the endorsement of the NEA’s 335,000-member affiliate in California, which will stage its primary on March 2. Mike Myslinkski, a spokesman for that state union, said the organization had no plans to change its endorsement of Mr. Dean, whose showings in the early contests have fallen far short of earlier expectations.

Teachers praised Mr. Dean for being much less reserved in his criticism of the No Child Left Behind law than his rivals, some of whom, like Sen. Kerry, voted for it in Congress(“‘No Child’ Law Faulted in Democratic Race,” Jan. 14, 2004.)

But recently, Sen. Kerry has lured more teachers’ unions into his camp. Like other Democratic candidates, the senator accuses President Bush of underfunding the No Child Left Behind Act. He pledges to push for higher teacher pay and school programs to improve student discipline.

The senator would focus on “fixing our aging school buildings, reducing class size, recruiting and retaining quality teachers, and giving them the resources they need to do their jobs,” AFT President Sandra Feldman said in a statement.

The national AFT, which represents 800,000 teachers in K-12 schools, in addition to higher education employees, health- care professionals, and other public employees, also pointed to issues well outside the classroom, such as Mr. Kerry’s military service in Vietnam and his long experience as an elected official.

Sen. Kerry had angered teachers’ unions in 1998 with public statements criticizing teacher tenure. (“Candidates’ Proposals on Teaching Await Details,”) Feb. 4, 2004.) But he has avoided that issue so far in this campaign, and an AFT spokesman said that dispute had dissipated.

“That was not a major problem for us,” Mr. Wohl said.

Christine Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said that the AFT’s and the NEA’s criticism of the Bush administration’s record on education was misguided.

“It’s unfortunate that the unions have chosen to reject accountability in education,” Ms. Iverson said. Had they supported that principle, she said, “they would have endorsed George Bush.”

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