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Why an Early NEA Clinton Endorsement Will Backfire

A top down endorsement of any candidate at this stage, writes Cody, 'will yield some union leaders on the podium for photos, but much less in terms of on-the-ground support' among members. (Photo: Keith Kissel/flickr)

In May of 2011, as the NEA and AFT participated in planning a major protest of the Obama administration’s education policies, the NEA leadership announced they were endorsing President Obama for re-election, more than a year prior to the election in November, 2012. It was never revealed what union leadership was offered in exchange for this early endorsement, but what we got was four more years of Arne Duncan, more Race to the Top, more Common Core, and more federal demands that test scores be included in teacher evaluations. It appears that NEA leadership may be preparing to make the same mistake by making an early endorsement of Hillary Clinton as soon as October 2nd.

I am not suggesting that NEA endorse Bernie Sanders instead. I think that while Senator Sanders’ campaign has offered much more substance on economic issues, his platform is very weak on K12 education. He should be pressed, as should Hillary Clinton and any other candidate, to take a public stand on the key issues we face regarding public education. I offered some key issues several months ago –– which remain largely missing from the campaigns.

For either candidate to get real grassroots support from NEA members, an endorsement ought to be the result of an extended dialogue with members. Hillary Clinton has engaged in a few phone calls with NEA leaders, but the membership has been left out. We need far more information about how the next president plans to approach federal intervention in public schools. Clinton has already declared her support for the Common Core, and her belief that it “helps organize your education system.”  Will the Department of Education continue to demand that states close schools with low test scores — even though these closures are destructive and concentrated in low income African American and Latino neighborhoods? Will Common Core tests continue to receive federal support? Will charter schools continue to be boosted by federal policy? Will the Department of Education continue to promote the use of test scores in teacher evaluation? Or could we expect a healthier focus of federal dollars on relieving, rather than deepening, inequities in education?

We are not in the same place we were in May, 2011. Then, the movement for real change in our schools was just beginning to coalesce. Today, people are far more well-informed and involved — especially NEA members. NEA members can play a very important role in the next presidential election. Teachers are among the most trusted members of communities across the country. When teachers speak, their communities listen. The three million members of NEA are a powerful force for change, if they are activated and enthused. The best way to unleash that enthusiasm and participation is to engage members in the discussion of who the organization ought to endorse. If that decision is made by a handful of leaders, it will send a message to members that their voices do not count. This will make it difficult for NEA to then activate their members.

NEA members will be active regardless. If NEA endorses Clinton or any other candidate without an adequate process that actively involves and engages their membership, and without clear answers to the vital questions we have regarding the Department of Education and Democratic party support of corporate reform, then teacher activism will take place outside of the NEA. That will leave the organization weakened, and make the endorsement far less powerful than it could be. An endorsement that is the process of real member participation will then unleash that energy into a grassroots campaign in support of the chosen candidate. A top down endorsement will yield some millions of member dollars, and some union leaders on the podium for photos, but much less in terms of on the ground support. If the NEA is to activate its members in the election, it ought to engage them in making this vital decision.

What do you think? Should NEA leadership move forward with an endorsement of Hillary Clinton? 

(Note: I was a dues-paying member of the NEA for 24 years.)

Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody spent 24 years working in Oakland schools, 18 of them as a science teacher at a high needs middle school. He is National Board certified, and now leads workshops with teachers focused on Project Based Learning. With education at a crossroads, he invites you to join him in a dialogue on education reform and teaching for change and deep learning. For additional information on Cody's work, visit his Web site, Teachers Lead, and read his blog, Living in Dialogue. You can follow him (@AnthonyCody) on Twitter.

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