More than 500 delegates from the nation’s two main teachers’ unions have spent much of the Democratic National Convention cheering on the party’s presidential and vice presidential candidates, as well as their own leadership.
National Education Association President Bob Chase addressed the gathering from the convention podium early Wednesday evening, and Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, was scheduled to speak Thursday afternoon.
In addition, all through the four-day-long meeting in Los Angeles, the unions— both longtime allies of the Democratic Party—have sponsored activities aimed at energizing their members about Vice President Al Gore and U.S. Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, D-Conn., the party’s nominees for president and vice president.
Teachers’ union members have definitely been making themselves known during the proceedings. NEA members—about 400 of whom are serving as delegates—can be identified easily by their white straw hats emblazoned with the union’s logo. And, about 160 AFT delegates and alternates, mainly from large cities where most of the AFT membership is based, are attending the convention. “It’s gone really well,” said Gregory King, a spokesman for the AFT.
NEA members alone account for about 9 percent of the convention’s 4,368 delegates. On Monday, members of the NEA and the AFT came together for a luncheon to honor President Clinton, who thanked them for their support. After dancing together to a jazz band, Mr. Chase and Ms. Feldman presented Mr. Clinton with artwork, including an original “Cat in the Hat” drawing signed by the late Dr. Seuss, and lifetime associate memberships in their organizations.
“Those of us whose daily life and breath come through children did not see you as the man from Hope, we saw you as the furtive hope that educating all our children well and safeguarding our public schools would once again be a national priority,’’ Ms. Feldman said to Mr. Clinton, referring to his hometown of Hope, Ark. “You made it possible that we can show the naysayers that we can, yes we can, turn around failing schools.”
The AFT also held a reception on Sunday for its delegates, and on Wednesday, the NEA honored Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., at a breakfast.
In addition, the NEA hosted its delegates in a suite at the Staples Center, where the convention is being held. Guests to the suite enjoyed a bird’s-eye view of the convention proceedings, including Mr. Chase’s five-minute-long speech.
Mr. Chase, who often reminds his audiences that he is a former history teacher, has said that he grades this year’s candidates on their “history” reports. On Wednesday, he told conventioneers that, while he had to correct GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush’s recollection of the nearly eight years of the current administration, he thinks Mr. Gore and Mr. Lieberman are doing just fine.
“Al Gore and Joe Lieberman have passed my test with flying colors,” he said in his speech. Mr. Chase went on to praise the duo’s proposals for more federal funding for schools, teacher quality, and school technology, and Mr. Gore’s staunch stand against vouchers.
“What’s more, as an old history teacher, I have to correct the notion that the Clinton-Gore administration has somehow squandered the last eight years of prosperity,” he added. Mr. Chase was referring to the argument made at the recent Republican convention by Mr. Bush, the Texas governor, that the administration had failed to use the good economic times as a chance to seriously address major national issues.
Maureen Dinnen, a convention delegate from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who is also the president of the Florida Education Association, which is affiliated with both the NEA and the AFT, said she was excited to see so many people pointing to education as a top priority.
Ms. Dinnen said that after the convention, she plans to visit as many of her local members as she can to emphasize the importance of voting and explain the differences, as she sees them, between Vice President Gore and Gov. Bush. She believes her message will resonate well with Florida teachers because of the state’s year-old voucher program, which was championed by Gov. Jeb Bush, a brother of the GOP nominee.
“We want to get teachers to vote and have them speak out on education,” Ms. Dinnen said. “Teachers are a little shy in the public forum, and we need them to be more vocal.”