Hillary Clinton Tells the NEA: 'You'll Always Have a Seat at the Table'
By Alyson Klein and Stephen Sawchuk
Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, told the National Education Association Tuesday that, if elected, she would be educators' "partner in the White House," invest in teacher training and wraparound services, and have their back when "union busting governors" or "hostile legislatures" try to take away their collective bargaining rights.
Clinton thanked the 3 million-member NEA, which is holding its annual convention here, for sticking by her in the surprisingly fierce primary against Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
She promised that she would return the favor by making sure that teachers—some of whom were blindsided by Obama administration K-12 initiatives, especially around tying teacher evaluations to test scores—will always be part of the policymaking process.
"If I am fortunate enough to be elected president, educators will have a partner in the White House, and you'll always have a seat at the table," she said. "I have this old-fashioned idea that when we are making decisions about education, we actually should listen to our educators."
Teachers, she said, are often unfairly blamed when policymakers refuse to provide the necessary resources to underperforming schools.
"We ask so much of you, and we don't give you nearly enough in return," she said.
Clinton told the union she wants to see professional development seriously ramped up. And she wants to pay teachers more. "No educator should have to take a second or third job just to make ends meet," she said.
And Clinton called for ensuring all students have access to high-speed broadband for expanding wraparound services, including extracurricular activities and counseling services.
"It is time we treated every child as our precious child," she said. "You should not have to be from a well to-do family to get good mental health services or join a soccer team."
Clinton never mentioned the Every Student Succeeds Act, of which the NEA was a huge supporter. But she did make it clear that she wants to make sure tests don't overtake instruction, a goal she shares with the new law's architects.
"Tests should go back to their original purpose: giving useful information to teachers so that you know and parents know how our kids and our schools are doing, and then we can come together to help them improve," Clinton said.
Clinton, who was criticized early on the in campaign for anti-charter school rhetoric, only mentioned charters once in the roughly 30 minute speech, in what brought audible jeers. She said she wants educators to be able to learn from the best schools, whether they are traditional public or charter.
The biggest boos though, were reserved for Clinton's opponent, real estate mogul and presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump.
Clinton pointed to the lack of details in his education plan: Trump, she noted, said he wants to get rid of the U.S. Department of Education, but might "leave some tentacles out there ... whatever that means," Clinton said.
Trump, she said, has said some schools receive too much funding, even as students in Detroit are stuck in crumbling, rodent-infested classrooms.
And she talked about the so-called "Trump effect" on students. One parent wrote Clinton to tell her that her adopted son had asked whether he would have to go back to Ethiopia if Trump, who has made it clear he wants to seriously revamp immigration policy, is elected.
Reception and Reaction
Overall, the speech, which was preceded and followed by power ballads by female artists, like Kelly Clarkson's "Fight Song," was heavy on firing up the troops. Teachers' union volunteering can be even more powerful for a presidential campaign than members' donations.
NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, for one, liked what she heard.
"What she said in the speech is exactly what we already knew about her," she told reporters. "She sees education as the whole community, and that always touches my heart."
And here's how García explained the boos that greeted Clinton's charter remarks: "In so many of our communities, charter schools have devastated school funding," she said. "For us, the anger comes from the growing franchise of for-profit charters."
Clinton, for the most part, received a very enthusiastic reception from the crowd of about 6,900 delegates.
"I questioned the early endorsement because of how it would be viewed by members, but I truly believe she is the only candidate who has the experience to work to make education the best it can be," said Rebecca Gamboa, an Illinois delegate. "It's easy for candidates to say, 'I've got your backs," but she has. And she has the backs of kids."
Several remarked on Clinton's support for addressing students' out-of-school needs.
"I didn't think it really delved into too many policy details, but it was clear that she understands the problems and challenges that the profession, and our students, are facing," said Shaun Creighton, an Arizona delegate. "Looking at the whole picture, the whole child— that was very validating to hear. As teachers, we see firsthand how that impacts our students."
Some delegates noted that the speech stayed mostly on safe topics, leaving delegates wondering what view Clinton will take on the regulations for ESSA, which are still being rolled out—and who Clinton might tap as the U.S. secretary of education.
"I don't think it pushed anyone who didn't support her before into her camp," said Shannon Ergun, a Washington state delegate who's active in the Badass Teachers Association, an NEA caucus. "There was a lot of rah-rah ... she could have put herself out there by opposing charters, and opposing tests."
And at least one delegate remains so angry about the union's decision to back Clinton early on that she boycotted the speech altogether.
"I opted out," of Clinton's address, said Kathleen Jeskey, a 6th-grade dual immersion teacher from Oregon who was wearing a "Feel the Bern" button. "I'm not happy that we endorsed so early. I think it killed Bernie's chances with teachers. It wasn't a fair fight, let's put it that way."
And Jeskey and other teachers aren't thrilled that big-name education philanthropists, including Bill Gates, have donated to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation.
Other observers were more positive. There was a lot to like in Clinton's speech, especially where she took the courageous move of talking about supporting schools that work, regardless of whether they are traditional district schools or charters, said Shavar Jeffries, the president of Democrats for Education Reform.
"I think it was important for her to directly confront the teachers and say, whatever works for babies, we support, wherever we find it," Jeffries said in an interview.
Although Clinton hasn't released a comprehensive K-12 plan and people are still waiting for "more meat on the bones" on what she would do as president, Jeffries said he's been pleased at what Clinton has said about specific education policy issues so far, such as strong support for pre-K and robust accountability for schools. And he said Clinton also struck the right note when it comes to the best political approach for K-12 issues.
"We've seen the basic building blocks of a more comprehensive agenda," Jeffries said. "The elements we've seen, we think there's a lot there to be positive about."
Photo: Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton addresses the National Education Association's representative assembly on Tuesday in Washington. —Molly Riley/AP