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When Will the Largest Teachers' Union Endorse a Presidential Candidate? Here's What We Know

NEA-strong-public-schools-blog.jpgHouston

Days after 10 Democratic presidential contenders made their education pitches at the National Education Association's representative assembly, delegates are weighing their options.

But an official endorsement from the nation's largest teachers' union is still a ways away. There is not yet an expected timeline for when NEA will make an endorsement in the primary, said NEA President Lily Eskelsen García in an interview. An endorsement from the NEA comes with a lot of campaign money, as well as volunteer muscle. 

In the 2016 presidential election, the NEA endorsed Hillary Clinton over Sen. Bernie Sanders in early October 2015, angering many union members who wanted a lengthier process. Many members felt like their support for Sanders was not considered in the endorsement, and other members had been hoping that Vice President Joe Biden would jump in the race. And in the 2008 campaign, NEA did not endorse any candidate in the primary. 

"Four years ago, you had two frontrunners," Eskelsen García said. "Now you've got 20 people who met the criteria to be on the [Democratic National Committee] stage. It's very, very different. ... This is way too early to see who will have the strongest campaigns."

As the campaign progresses into the fall and into the primaries in the spring, she said, NEA officials will have "decision points every week." 

"Anywhere along that continuum, we may decide—looking at debates, looking at strength of campaigns, looking at who has the best chance to beat Donald Trump," she said. "And we will constantly be engaging our members and our leaders about where they are." 

Candidates who want the NEA's endorsement now have to agree to a video interview with Eskelsen García and fill out a detailed questionnaire on their views. NEA has also created a website, Strong Public Schools 2020, where teachers can submit questions for the union to pass along to the candidates. (During the presidential forum last week, candidates each answered three questions that were submitted through that website.) 

So far, members are optimistic about the changes. Kevin DuBois, a teacher from Rhode Island who chairs the NEA's Democratic Caucus, said he thinks the endorsement process this time around is "a lot more inclusive of the general membership."

"If and when NEA leadership makes an endorsement for the primary, I think more members will be immediately more on board and energized to support that choice, which I think is important because we have so many people to pick from," he said. "The possibility for division among members is a big fear."

DuBois said he'd like to have NEA leadership make an official endorsement sometime in early spring. Right now, he said, members are still considering their options. After the presidential forum, he asked about 50 of his caucus members who their No. 1 pick was so far. The four most popular candidates were Sen. Kamala Harris, Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and former HUD Secretary Julian Castro—interestingly, he said, only one or two people picked Sanders. 

What Delegates Think About the Endorsement Process

During the representative assembly in Houston, delegates considered several business items that would make changes to the endorsement process. 

One of the most heated debates was around a new business item that would have required the NEA to "demand that all candidates seeking our union's endorsement publicly state their opposition to all charter school expansion." (Sanders, for one, would have qualified under this policy—he has called for a freeze on new charter schools until a national "audit" is conducted.)

The measure was controversial, with many members pointing out that a growing number of charter schools are unionized. "With the attack on unions today, the last thing we need to do is run off our members in charter schools," one delegate said. 

Another delegate said, "We need to focus our time and energy on getting Donald Trump out of office."

The measure did not pass, nor did a measure that asked NEA to highlight the proposals of candidates to reduce income disparity and "other forms of economic injustice." Other measures that would have required any candidate seeking endorsement to commit themselves to full funding for special education or to prevent the NEA from endorsing a candidate who receives support from the National Rifle Association were referred to an NEA committee.

Meanwhile, Peter Henry, a delegate from Washington state, had introduced a new business item that would have called upon the NEA to consider members' preferences when deciding which candidate to support, either through a poll or voting on a website. The measure narrowly did not pass, with many delegates saying that the way for members to give their input is through their state affiliate president. 

But Henry said he was optimistic that NEA leadership would still work to incorporate member input in their decision this election cycle.

"Last time around, I felt very disengaged in their political process, but this time I'm very, very hopeful about what I see," he said in an interview.

There will be more opportunities for candidates to make their case to members: Eskelsen García said NEA will host other candidate forums this year, although not at this scale. 

"We'll have tele-town halls. We'll be doing some local forums everywhere, where NEA will be the sponsor with the state affiliate," she said. "But we want to do as much as we can do electronically where hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people can call in and listen because this is a huge decision. For us, there is an ultimate goal: We want a new president."

Image: Delegates listens to Democratic presidential candidates speak during the National Education Association's "Strong Public Schools" presidential forum on July 5 in Houston. —David J. Phillip/AP 

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