Teaching Profession

Teachers’ Union Shifts Into Campaign Gear

By Bess Keller — July 14, 2004 6 min read

The nation’s largest teachers’ union revved into campaign speed last week, even as its choice for president, presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry, was a no-show at the group’s annual meeting.

Mr. Kerry had been scheduled for weeks to speak July 6 to the nearly 9,000 delegates during the National Education Association’s convention here. But that morning, the union activists got word that the Massachusetts senator canceled because he was about to name Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina as his running mate.

It was left to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., to step in at the 11th hour.

Speaking to the wildly cheering crowd, the former first lady praised the delegates for their endorsement a day earlier of the presumptive nominee and urged them to bring others into the Kerry-Edwards fold.

Earlier that day, union President Reg Weaver told the delegates that he had made no secret of his displeasure when he talked to the Kerry campaign. The next day, Mr. Kerry and Mr. Edwards appeared together before the unionists by live video feed from Cleveland.

After apologizing, Sen. Kerry called the teachers “friends,” acknowledged political debts to them, and took a jab at President Bush. “Now, we must hold this president accountable for making a mockery of the words ‘no child left behind,’” he said.

Kerry Gets Blessing

The 2.7-million member union, which came out strongly against President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act a year ago, has put complaints about its provisions and funding at the center of efforts to increase membership and exercise political clout. The law is widely unpopular with teachers, who say its accountability measures are destructively uniform and who blame budget cuts they see at their schools on money spent to meet the law’s requirements.

Though he voted for the law, on the campaign trail Sen. Kerry has criticized its effects, while the Bush administration has steadfastly stood behind the act. The senator’s position, and the many ties between the NEA and the Democratic Party, left virtually no doubt that the delegates would endorse Mr. Kerry. They did so on July 5, voting 7,390 to 1,153.

Just how much the enthusiasm of July 5 dimmed when Mr. Kerry skipped his scheduled appearance was not altogether clear.

“He’s made some derogatory remarks about teachers and made a grave error in not coming,” asserted Mary Alice Herbert, a retired teacher from Vermont, who is running for vice president on the Socialist Party ticket. Still, she added, “Hillary [Clinton] saved the day, helped compensate.”

So did the candidate’s appearance by video feed, according to Phillip D. Wells, a special education teacher from Montclair, N.J. “I don’t think it makes up for it, but it’s … a good attempt.”

Carrots, Not Sticks

At the start of the Representative Assembly, Mr. Weaver set the direction of the July 4-7 gathering in a speech that focused on flaws in the No Child Left Behind Act and called for a new administration in Washington that would listen to teachers.

“We have had meetings with members of the president’s staff, and with the secretary of education, and despite our best efforts, there seems to be a continued lack of acceptance of the professionalism and the expertise that this organization brings to the table,” he declared.

Though the union leader made many of the same points a year ago, this speech moved beyond the remedies of “fixing and funding” the law to sketching how the union would meet the law’s broad-brush goal of raising student achievement.

“My approach would be to use a carrot instead of a stick to improve public education for all children,” Mr. Weaver said.

He proposed spending more money to meet the needs of families through, for instance, parent centers in schools serving poor children and expanded early-childhood education. He also touched on longtime preferences of the union such as reduced class size and tuition aid for aspiring teachers.

Signs of the campaign season were plentiful in the convention center, from a voter-registration booth to Kerry buttons on many a chest.

The NEA’s run-up to the election has brought together its push to strengthen local and state affiliates with the political campaigning that is the union’s election-year standard. This year, though, the politicking has been stepped up, according to Diane Shust, the union’s director of government relations. Rather than mobilizing in the fall as usual, NEA political operatives arrived early this year in 10 states considered battlegrounds in the presidential election, including Florida, Michigan, and Ohio, Ms. Shust said. Five more states where Sen. Kerry faces an uphill fight for votes will get staff members from headquarters after Labor Day, she added.

A related effort is to raise money for the union’s political action committee. In the last two-year election cycle, the PAC took in $7.2 million that, unlike dues money, can be used for direct contributions to candidates’ campaigns. During the convention, delegates had ponied up more than $1.25 million toward what leaders hope will be an even larger war chest.

Membership Growth Down

Meanwhile, the new emphasis on strengthening affiliates continueswith an election-year twist.

Union members are being asked to host “house parties” on Sept. 22 to get people thinking about where candidates stand on education issues in a year when Iraq and the economy are uppermost in voters’ minds. Two thousand members signed on to be hosts at the convention.

Said John Stocks, who came to the union a year ago to lead the recruitment campaign: “We hope every member gets involved in mobilizing around the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” the name of the No Child Left Behind law the union prefers.

Criticism of the law is also a rallying point for the union’s recruitment efforts, which aim to increase membership as the rate of growth slipped for a second year. For more than a year, affiliates in 12 states have been getting extra money and help from the parent union for recruitment.

“What Reg [Weaver] has done is give a potential member a reason to join the local, state, and national organization because of his advocacy around No Child Left Behind,” Mr. Stocks said.

Marsha S. Smith, one of the union’s six at-large executive board members, has been traveling regularly from her Maryland home to the Kentucky and New Mexico affiliates. Each of the other five board members has also adopted two states.

“We work with state leaders on membership plans, work with them on developing issues” important to members, Ms. Smith said.

The last day of the convention provided a measure of the political-mindedness of the delegates when three-quarters of them approved keeping a dues increase that goes to fight state ballot initiatives or legislation deemed injurious to union principles, and to aid public relations efforts. The hike had been scheduled to sunset in the coming year.

They also agreed to increase their dues for those funds by $1 per year for the next five years.

Still, there was some dissention about the strong political thrust of this year’s meeting.

William T. Gunn, a history teacher from Raymond, Ill., and the vice president of the Panhandle Teachers Association, stood out in the crowd because of the Bush-Cheney stickers on his T-shirt.

“If somebody were to come in off the street, they’d have no idea this was a teachers’ union,” charged the eight-year teaching veteran. “We lose a lot of respect as teachers because of the Democratic cast of the NEA.”

Mr. Gunn, who disagrees with the No Child Left Behind law, said he’ll spend the rest of the summer talking himself into remaining with the union.

But his was not the predominant sentiment. Political work, said Beth McDougall, who is vice president of her local in Crookston, Minn., “is absolutely the crux of what we need to do to get education back on track.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2004 edition of Education Week as Teachers’ Union Shifts Into Campaign Gear

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