Teaching Profession

Teachers’ Unions Pass Over Reno and Reich

By John Gehring — September 04, 2002 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 5 min read
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Corrected: Clarification: This story should have said that the Florida Education Association is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Janet Reno’s campaign to become Florida’s next governor has featured a down-home tour of the state in a red pickup truck and a glitzy dance party at a South Beach nightclub.

Elections 2002

But the former U.S. attorney general is all business when she attacks incumbent Gov. Jeb Bush’s support of school vouchers, rails against overcrowded classrooms, and pounds the lectern for higher teacher salaries.

Up north in Massachusetts, another prominent veteran of the Clinton Cabinet, Robert B. Reich, has also been on the stump trying to parlay his credentials as a former secretary of labor into victory at the polls in this fall’s gubernatorial election.

His Web site boasts the support of some 100 “Educators for Reich.” The candidate’s campaign coffers have been filled with help from university professors and others from the world of academe, where the one-time Rhodes Scholar returned as a Brandeis University professor since leaving Washington in 1997 after President Clinton’s first term.

Despite their celebrity status, however, the two have had bumpy rides in their bids for the Democratic nomination for governor. Most notably for observers of the politics of education, Ms. Reno and Mr. Reich both failed to win the support of influential state teachers’ unions for the party primaries this month.

In Florida, while Ms. Reno has a significant lead in the polls over her Democratic rivals going into the Sept. 10 primary election, Bill McBride—a lawyer who won the endorsement of the Florida Education Association— has unveiled a more detailed education plan. He’s also raised more money than Ms. Reno has and has aired television commercials focusing on education in the hope of nudging her at the wire.

In the Bay State, the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, and the Massachusetts Federation of Teachers chose to back Thomas F. Birmingham, the state Senate president who helped write the state’s sweeping 1993 education reform act. It was the first time both unions have supported the same candidates in a primary.

A recent poll in Massachusetts shows State Treasurer Shannon O’Brien as the leading Democrat heading into the Sept. 17 primary there, with Mr. Reich in second place. A former state senator, Warren E. Tolman, is also seeking the Democratic nomination. Mitt Romney, the president of the 2002 Winter Olympics organizing committee, is running unopposed as the only Republican to replace acting Gov. Jane M. Swift, a Republican who bowed out of the race.

Education is expected to be a central issue in both general elections. A newspaper poll last spring showed Florida voters ranked improving public education as the most important issue facing the state. Gubernatorial candidates in Massachusetts have all called education a top priority.

Florida Vouchers Debated

Vouchers will remain a sharply debated campaign issue in Florida, which has the country’s only statewide voucher program. It allows students in low-performing schools to use state money to attend private schools or other public schools. Last month, a judge ruled that the program violates a state ban on public funding for religious institutions.

As he seeks re-election, Mr. Bush remains a strong advocate for choice programs. Ms. Reno opposes any use of vouchers.

Florida voters will also consider a state ballot initiative in November on a constitutional amendment to reduce class sizes. Gov. Bush opposes the measure because of the costs involved. Ms. Reno has endorsed the initiative.

She also supports another ballot initiative that would offer free preschool to every 4-year-old in the state. Gov. Bush drew criticism for waiting until a day before the only debate for Democratic candidates to publicly support the pre-K initiative.

In addition to Ms. Reno and Mr. McBride, state Sen. Daryl L. Jones is seeking the Democratic nomination.

“We have a very hot Democratic primary,” said Susan A. MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa. While Ms. Reno— who was a district attorney in Dade County before being tapped by President Clinton to head the U.S. Department of Justice in 1993—enjoys widespread name recognition, Ms. MacManus said, she hasn’t fleshed out her education proposals.

“Reno has been faulted for being generic in her support for education,” she said.

Testing a Key Issue

A main pillar of Gov. Bush’s approach to education is the “A-Plus” program, which assigns schools letter grades based on students’ scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. Students at schools that receive an F grade twice within four years are eligible for tuition vouchers.

Ms. Reno has said she would stop using the FCAT to grade schools and favors judging schools on a variety of measures.

In Massachusetts, students must pass state exams in both mathematics and English/language arts in order to graduate. The Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, has been a lightning rod for critics. Mr. Reich says it shouldn’t solely determine whether students graduate.

As expected from a former head of the U.S. Department of Labor, Mr. Reich has called for expanding students’ workplace skills through internships and career-exploration programs.

A big part of Mr. Reich’s message: The K-12 model is outdated in the new economy. For example, he supports breaking down large high schools into smaller, career-focused learning communities.

“Education is the key issue in this race,” said Dorie Clark, the Reich campaign’s press secretary. “Secretary Reich’s message speaks about the link between education and employment.”

Like all of the Democratic contenders in Massachusetts, Mr. Reich opposes a ballot measure this fall that seeks to replace the state’s 31-year-old bilingual education program with an English-immersion program.

Even without the endorsement of the teachers’ unions, Ms. Clark predicted that Mr. Reich would win “a significant share” of teachers’ votes. “Their votes will not be monolithic,” she said.

Taking a Pass on Reno

In Florida, Ms. Reno views Gov. Bush as vulnerable on education. But her vision for what she would do differently failed to earn the endorsement of the Florida Education Association, a 122,000-member affiliate of the National Education Association. The union supports Mr. McBride, who wants a $1 billion increase in public school funding, financed in part by a 50-cent-per-pack tax on cigarettes.

Mr. McBride has released a 60-page education plan that, among other ideas, calls for raising the average teacher salary by $2,500 and using $100 million in lottery money on school construction.

“He just stands head and shoulders above the other candidates on public education,” said Tony Welch, the director of communications for the FEA.

While she hasn’t presented specifics on how she would pay for education programs, Ms. Reno has been promoting better pay for teachers so that Florida salaries are competitive with those of surrounding states. In addition to her stance on the FCAT, she wants to expand prekindergarten programs and reduce class sizes.

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