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Working In These Times

Wednesday, Jul 6, 2011, 11:44 am

Largest Teachers Union Endorses Obama (With Some Grumbling By Rank and File)

BY Akito Yoshikane

Eric Mossop, dressed as "Greenman," attends the 2011 NEA meeting on July 5 in Chicago.   (Photo by Rick Runion via National Education Association )

With teachers facing layoffs, budget cuts and curtailment of collective bargaining rights, the nation’s largest education union made an early presidential endorsement for Barack Obama on Monday.

The National Education Association, representing 3.2 million members, voted to support Obama at the union’s annual convention in his hometown of Chicago. The vote allows the union to urge its members to support the president and provides the political and financial resources for Obama heading into the 2012 election.

It is the earliest endorsement ever by the union and comes as Republicans have yet to produce a frontrunner among several candidates to challenge Obama. The union usually selects endorsements in the summer leading up to the election, but officials wanted to come out with “early and strong support” for Obama because he shared a similar vision.

Yet despite the initial support, not all rank and file members were on board, according to reports. Some policy differences with Obama and education secretary Arne Duncan have caused some to begrudgingly sign on. And statistics show its union members are endorsing Democratic presidential nominees with less enthusiasm.

Historical voting patterns show that NEA members, percentage wise, are supporting Democratic nominees in smaller numbers. Out of 7,516 total votes, 5,414 members voted in favor of Obama, but 2,012 did not support the incumbent. The 72-percent majority was lower than 79.8 vote he received for his 2008 election bid, which was already the lowest in the last five presidential elections, according to voting results provided by Kenneth J. Bernstein, a teacher in Washington D.C. Overall support for Democratic candidates has declined since 1996, when Bill Clinton received 91 percent of NEA members votes. The union has never endorsed any Republicans.

Many union educators have disagreed with the Obama administration’s support for charter schools and teacher evaluations based on student performance (although the union softened its stance recently). But NEA members were not wholly supportive of the early endorsement and engaged in spirited debates leading up to the convention, according to Education Week.

Some believed that presidential support has been taken for granted and would compromise any political leverage. Others felt compelled to make a quick endorsement for a political ally to counter the current anti-union backlash and provide support for Obama against impending political rhetoric from the elections.

Locally, a few affiliates were against the measure, including Baltimore County. The California Teachers Association opposed an early endorsement in a nonbinding vote passed before the convention. A proposal to delay the endorsement was also considered at the convention on Saturday but ended up falling short.

At the top level, however, union president Dennis Van Roekel praised Obama’s efforts in a statement, citing the stimulus package for averting layoffs following the financial crisis and an education bill that limited class sizes and preserved school programs. He downplayed the California vote, telling the Washington Post that the sentiment was aimed at the Education Department, not Obama.

Vice President Joe Biden spoke at the convention to try and bridge the discord behalf of the Obama administration. He acknowledged some differences but expressed support. But many of Obama’s advisors have displeased teachers’ unions. The NEA adopted a resolution denouncing Duncan’s policies at the convention. Former Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has also rankled unions by pushing for concessions. And national campaigns have been growing, including a large rally that is planned in front of the White House on July 30 to protest education policies such as Obama’s “Blueprint” and “Race to the Top” programs.

The relationship between teachers and top Democratic officials still remains under the auspice of common goals. But with teachers feeling the pinch, it looks as if many members settled with Obama for lack of a better alternative. Whether the early endorsement will help forge better relations is not yet clear.

The post has been updated to clarify that an NEA affiliate in Baltimore County, not the (city of) Baltimore, was against an early endorsement of Obama.

Akito Yoshikane is a freelance writer based in Chicago. He can be reached at akitoyoshikane [at] gmail.com

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