Hillary Rodham Clinton told the president of the National Education Association that she would listen to teachers if elected president, a simple promise Monday that impressed the president of the nation’s largest labor union.
“She used the most important word that I was personally looking for, the word ‘listen’,” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the NEA, which represents mostly K-12 teachers and paraprofessionals and has 3 million members.
Garcia met privately with Clinton, a Democrat who is running for president, at NEA headquarters as part of the union’s endorsement process for the 2016 campaign. The NEA has invited both Democratic and Republican candidates to complete a 34-question survey, sit for a videotaped interview with Garcia and attend the union’s annual meeting at the end of the month.
The union released excerpts from the Clinton interview but did not release the videotape. It also did not provide Clinton’s answers to the questionnaire, which sought her opinion on a range of topics, including whether she would curtail the use of competitive grant programs such as Race to the Top, which the Obama administration has used to push states to adopt its favored education policies.
The Clinton campaign did not immediately respond to questions about the interview and the NEA survey.
The NEA will make its candidate videos and questionnaires available to its members, according to Carrie Pugh, the union’s political director. NEA leaders have not decided if the union will make an endorsement before the primaries, Garcia said.
The NEA’s endorsement is helpful to candidates not only for the campaign cash the union is likely to spend in 2016 but for the ground troops it can field: Close to one out of every 100 U.S. residents is an NEA member.
Garcia has pushed back against the federal requirement that schools test students every year in math and reading from grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, calling it “toxic testing” that has turned schools into test-prep factories. In most states, standardized test results are used to make personnel decisions about teachers, a situation that Garcia calls “test and punish.”
The questionnaire asked Clinton if she would urge Congress to reduce the number of “federally-required high stakes standardized tests.” The union declined to share her answer.
Clinton pledged to examine standardized testing from the perspective of the teacher, Garcia said.
“She said ‘I think we have to question how we’re testing, how we’re using the tests’,” Garcia said. The candidate said she wanted to know whether annual tests give teachers and parents good information about a student’s strengths and weaknesses, and whether they help educators improve instruction.
Clinton was the first candidate the NEA has interviewed.
“She basically said ‘What kind of fool would be making public policy without listening to the people who live in those communities, the people who know the names of the kids’?” Garcia said. “I loved that.”
Clinton has to negotiate a schism within the Democratic Party over education policy. Teachers unions want a reduced emphasis on testing and more investment in public schools, including social services for the increasing number of students living in poverty. Others in the party want market-based policies, including teacher evaluations based partly on student test scores, the expansion of charter schools, merit pay, and weakening of tenure rules and seniority protections.
The NEA endorsed President Obama twice but has grown increasingly at odds with the Obama administration over testing and teacher evaluations, among other issues. Last summer, the NEA — historically the more reticent of the two major teachers unions — demanded Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s resignation while the AFT called for Duncan to be put on an “improvement’ plan.
Last week, Clinton met with AFT leadership as part of its vetting process.
“It’s just dead wrong to make teachers the scapegoats for all of society’s problems,” Clinton told the AFT, according to selected quotes released by the union. “Where I come from, teachers are the solution. And I strongly believe that unions are part of the solution, too.”
The AFT also met with Clinton’s rivals for the Democratic nomination, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley and U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).