Teachers Union To Back Candidate
Thursday, July 3, 2008
A torrent of teachers is flowing into Washington this week as one of the nation's largest and most powerful unions aims to decide whom to endorse in the presidential race, what position to take on revisions to the federal No Child Left Behind law and how to react to state and local proposals for merit pay, private school vouchers and public charter schools.
The National Education Association's annual meeting, which will attract 10,000 delegates and a few thousand other union members and guests, comes amid a shaky economy that could threaten teachers' salaries and benefits.
Representatives of the 3.2 million member union, meeting in a cavernous hall of the Washington Convention Center, call themselves the world's largest democratic governing body.
Each presidential election year, the NEA convenes in the capital, and yesterday the contest between presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama and presumptive Republican nominee John McCain weighed on many minds. Obama, a heavy favorite to win the NEA's endorsement tomorrow, is scheduled to speak to the union via satellite Saturday. Sen. McCain (Ariz.) declined an invitation to speak, an NEA spokesman said.
Enthusiasm for Sen. Obama (Ill.) was tempered by his nomination fight against Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Several members said yesterday that Clinton had been more in line with the union's views on education.
Dardon A. Hayter, a Texas delegate who described herself as "a big supporter of Hillary," said of Obama: "I really don't know. He talks about how every child needs a good education. . . . I feel certain that we're going to endorse Obama, but I have to talk to him."
"I think that [Obama] would bring a fresh perspective, which is badly needed," said Megan Link, president of the Prince William Education Association. "I think people are cautiously optimistic, and I would like to include myself there."
The next president will have to grapple with the future of the No Child Left Behind law, which President Bush signed in 2002 and which is deeply unpopular among union members because of testing demands it imposes on schools and sanctions for those that miss academic targets. Link refused to say the law's name. Reg Weaver, the NEA's president, called it "the so-called No Child Left Behind law" and said the federal role in education is "out of balance," with too many demands on local schools without funding for solutions.
"The No Child Left Behind Act is like a Russian novel," said Joel Packer, the director of education policy and practice for the NEA, recounting a quip. "It's long, it's complicated, and at the end everyone dies."
The law was enacted with broad, bipartisan congressional support and aims to reduce achievement gaps and spotlight schools that need help.
On other matters, a Florida Education Association spokesman said he is worried about ballot amendments proposed to push public funds for private school vouchers. A Maryland delegate, Charlie Mann of the Prince George's County Educators' Association, said he opposes a county school initiative to offer teachers bonuses for exceptional performance -- even though the NEA affiliate backs the program. A New Jersey delegate, Karen Borrelli, said she worries that teachers might lose pension benefits.
Many delegates also checked out what the capital had to offer.
Easily identifiable by the convention badges around their necks, the teachers shed classroom attire and donned tourist regalia, sporting "Washington, D.C." T-shirts and NEA canvas bags loaded with souvenirs. As they rode the Red Line or walked the streets, they debated such timeless questions as whether to visit the Air and Space Museum or the National Portrait Gallery and whether to get lunch in Chinatown or Adams Morgan.
Outside the convention hall, delegates and others talked shop and browsed educational exhibitions and a bookstore carrying such titles as "The Inspiring Teacher" or the somewhat less promising "Inductive Reasoning in the Secondary Classroom."
The meetings run through Sunday. Delegates said anyone with a credential can address the group.
If Link stands up to speak, she'll represent 4,000 NEA members from Prince William, a prospect she found thrilling and terrifying.
"I remember distinctly the first time I walked into the hall here, and it was, 'Wow, what am I doing here? How did I get involved in this?' " she said. "You see you're not in the boat alone, and sometimes your boat is better than someone else's."