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What Did Democratic Presidential Candidates Tell AFT Union Leaders?

We're not even halfway through 2015, but the American Federation of Teachers, a 1.6 million-member union, is wasting no time in researching the 2016 presidential candidates.

The union's top leadership sat down earlier this week and chatted with three folks vying for the Democratic nomination: Hillary Clinton, the former Secretary of State; Martin O'Malley, the former Maryland governor, and Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator who considers himself an independent socialist.

AFT endorsed Clinton back in the 2008 primary season (even as the National Education Association stayed neutral). And pretty much the entire edu-political world would eat their hats if AFT didn't champion her again. For one thing, she's the obvious frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. Plus, Randi Weingarten, the president of AFT, has had a long working relationship with both Clintons.

Still, the union appears to be doing its due diligence. AFT officials didn't release a line-by-line transcript or video of the interviews, sad to say, but they did provide reporters with some excerpts of the candidates' opening remarks. While these don't provide in-the-weeds policy details, they do give voters a sense of how the candidates may frame education issues during the debate.

So without further ado...

Clinton name-checked her favorite issue—early education—and said beefing up teacher quality is the best way to fix K-12 schools. She thinks unions can be part of the solution:

"I think we are at a very pivotal turning point. I've been traveling around the country, and I've been listening to people and hearing what Americans are thinking about. And I am absolutely convinced that education must be at the top of our agenda again. So I am putting it at the heart of my campaign. ... We can build a stronger, fairer, more inclusive America where once again parents feel like they can give their kids real choices and opportunities. Every single child should be able to start learning early at home, in child-care settings, at pre-K, and then go off to public school with teachers who are going to be able to support them and who have the respect and dignity that comes with the teaching profession.

"I want to work with you to make sure we do what needs to be done based on evidence, not ideology. ... And from what I've seen, all of the evidence, and my own personal experience, says that the most important and impactful thing we can do for our public schools is to recruit, support and retain the highest-quality educators. It is just dead wrong to make teachers the scapegoats for all of society's problems. Where I come from, teachers are the solution. And I strongly believe that unions are part of the solution, too."

O'Malley touted his own history of union cooperation. And he talked about education's place in improving the overall economy, and his respect for teachers.

"We need to build up our own economy. And there is no work more important than the work that so many of you are engaged in. ... I have a tremendous amount of respect for the profession of teaching. As a governor and as mayor, I have always worked in partnership with [union leaders]. I don't know how these other guys think. ... How do you improve public education if you vilify and turn into enemies the teachers that are responsible for our children? ... 

"We believe that the more a person learns, the more a person earns and the better that is for our entire economy. One of the most important things we can do to give our country to our kids and restore the truth of the American dream is to improve education and access to higher education for the next generation of Americans. You know that and I know that. It is a building block of this American dream that we share."

Sanders really hit inadequate funding for K-12 schools hard.

"Thousands of schools across this country do not have enough money to provide quality education to our kids, at the same time that the Republicans have just given a huge tax break in their budget to the wealthiest two-tenths of 1 percent, over $200 billion in the next 10 years. The issue is getting our priorities right. You have 25 hedge fund managers who, a few years ago, made as much money as 435,000 public school teachers. Is that what America is supposed to be about? ...

"I am calling for a political revolution in this country, and what that means in English is not arguing about whether we cut education by 3 percent or 6 percent, but we're arguing about changing fundamentally the priorities of this nation. We are the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. Today. Why in God's name is there any school in America talking about cutting back?"

So is the union meeting with anyone else? No other meetings have been scheduled yet, said Kate Childs Graham, a union spokeswoman. 

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