It’s no wonder that Gov. Mitt Romney declared at his last debate with President Obama that “I love teachers.” According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are about 3.3 million working public school K-12 teachers, more than 75 percent of them women. That figure doesn’t include teachers in higher education, or retired teachers, or people who have family members who are teachers. That’s a lot of votes and a lot of campaign volunteers — and that’s why it is fair to wonder whether teachers could have an impact on the November election.
It’s not likely that Romney’s expression of love will do much for him when it comes to teachers’ votes. They have traditionally backed Democrats, and the two big teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, have both endorsed Obama, despite policy differences.
Unions, though, don’t have the same political power they once had. And polls show that teachers are more demoralized than ever, with many criticizing Obama’s education policies, including his administration’s push for evaluation systems that educators say are unfair. Some teachers and principals have said they won’t vote for either Obama or Romney; others say they will vote for Obama but haven’t worked for his campaign as they did four years ago. Will this have an effect on the results?
Here’s a look at the issue by Mark Naison, professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University in New York and chairman of the department of African and African-American Studies. He is also co-director of the Urban Studies Program, African-American History 20th Century. A version of this first appeared on the blog With A Brooklyn Accent.
By Mark Naison
Virtually ever poll now has President Obama and Mitt Romney embroiled in an extremely close race. The president could very well win this election; but he could also lose. And if he does lose, I will have to go back to something I first started saying nearly three years — namely that turning off the nation’s teachers with educational policies which silence their voice and put them under extreme stress is not only bad for the nation’s schools, it could cripple the president’s re-election efforts.
I have worked to get the president to incorporate the nation’s teachers into education policy discussions, and stop requiring schools to ratchet up the number of standardized tests to receive federal funding. I have privately engaged people close to the president in conversation about teachers’ disillusionment, efforts which were totally unsuccessful.
The president’s inner circle, from what I could gather, refused to bend on support for Race to the Top and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. They were not only convinced that these policies would end up improving the nation’s schools; they felt that the political gains to be made in terms of support from wealthy donors and influential journalists was far greater than any losses that would occur in terms of teacher enthusiasm. They knew the largest teachers unions would support the president no matter what policies he chose to implement.
Now, at crunch time, when it’s too late to change course, I can tell you that this judgment was a severe miscalculation. Not only have the president’s policies failed to narrow testing gaps by race and class, they have contributed to teacher morale in the nation to be the lowest it has been since pollsters began measuring this trait.
But the political consequences may have been even more serious than the educational ones. Most teachers will probably end up voting for the president, but from what I have seen, in both New York and around the nation, they will not be manning phone banks, canvassing in their neighborhoods, traveling to swing states on the weekends and generally giving time, money and energy to assure the president’s election the way they did in 2008.
Many pundits attribute the Obama victory in 2008 to an incredibly strong “ground game” composed of huge numbers of volunteers, as well as paid staff, working to get out the vote in battleground states. Many of those individuals, including me, my wife, and many of my friends, were teachers, professors and school administrators. During this election, I know of few, if any educators putting in that kind of heroic effort, almost entirely because they are feeling betrayed by the president, indeed, by the entire Democratic Party, on educational issues, even though they support the president’s positions on reproductive freedom, gay rights, taxation and medical care.
There is no way of knowing whether the phenomenon I am describing is will be a “game changer” in this election. But based on what I have seen in 2008 and in this campaign, there is a chance it could be. And if it is, the Obama brain trust has no one to blame but themselves.