Teachers' Union Endorses Obama Despite Hating His Policies

Race to the Top's competitve grants, merit pay dishearten educators.

ByABC News
July 5, 2011, 6:31 PM

July 6, 2011 -- President Obama seems to have a love-hate relationship with the nation's largest teacher's union.

On Monday, the National Education Association endorsed Obama in 2012 -- long before his Republican opponent has even been selected. But the vote of confidence comes in spite of the fact that educators are less than thrilled with the president's efforts to reform education.

Two days before endorsing the president, the NEA passed a resolution outlining 13 areas where the union adamantly disagrees with the policies of Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan.

The NEA letter states that educators are "appalled" by Duncan's emphasis on competitive grants, standardized testing and one-size-fits-all policies.

"It's pretty clear that there was plenty of discussion and, sort of, hand-wringing about the fact they had no choice but to endorse the president, Obama being much better than the alternative," said Mike Petrilli, the executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said the disagreements that exist between the union and the president are merely about process, not about ideology.

"Where we are totally in sync is in our vision for America," Van Roekel said. "I don't mind fighting like crazy with this administration on how to get there, but what I don't want to do is fight a system that has a different vision of education," referring to the Republican party.

But not all NEA members agree.

Dennis Kelly, who attended the conference as the president of the United Educators of San Francisco, said he was "extraordinarily disappointed" with the Department of Education under Duncan.

While he still plans to vote for Obama in 2012, Kelly said he did not expect to see any positive changes in education if the president is re-elected. He said programs like Race to the Top, a competitive grant program in which school districts compete for federal funds, unfairly creates winners and losers, giving many educators a "deep sense of being cheated."

"As long as there are losers, those are children and we are committed to seeing that none of them lose," Kelly said.

Democrats have traditionally not had a hard time garnering support from the education community. The NEA has never endorsed a Republican and contributes 10 times as much money to Democrats' campaigns as Republicans.

But this year's endorsement passed by one of the narrowest margins Kelly has seen in years, he said, with 28 percent of the assembly voting against supporting the president.

Hess said the NEA's endorsement of Obama is to be expected, although it is unprecedentedly early, especially considering the Republican Party has not chosen a candidate yet.

"Nothing here is in the least bit surprising," Hess said. "The NEA has been an integral part of the Democratic coalition going back to when it first endorsed in a presidential race when Jimmy Carter was running."

But even with an official endorsement, the president may have difficulty inspiring educators to be active in his re-election campaign.

"The big opening question is if teachers sit on their hands in 2012 and don't man those phone banks and knock on doors and do the things that they do so effectively, will that hurt Obama's re-election?" Petrilli said.

In states like New Jersey, Wisconsin and Ohio where governors were faced with steep budget deficits, lawmakers took a scalpel to education funding and collective bargaining rights inciting an uproar from teachers' unions.

Van Roekel said the outrage in the states is not going to simmer down over the next year before the 2012 election, but rather will amp up.

Petrilli agreed, saying the unions will be "energized" to vote out of office the state legislators who backed the anti-collective bargaining legislation and that energy could spill over into the national elections.

"Maybe Obama figures he doesn't need to energize teachers because they are already going to be energized over state leaders," Petrilli said.

Nevertheless, education policy will likely be overshadowed in the 2012 election by the economy, the national debt and federal deficits.

"The election is not going to turn on education. It's not going to turn on the NEA," Petrilli said. "At the end of the day this is going to be an election about the economy."