Meet the teacher lobby behind Hillary Clinton that's not the teachers union

These two teachers want to influence education policy, and they want Hillary Clinton to hear from more than just unions or reformers.

Naveed Amalfard and Luke Villalobos were in Los Angeles on Wednesday to jump-start efforts around a political action committee, a group that can raise money on behalf of candidates. They call themselves America's Teachers.

Until now, most lobbying efforts around education have come from two sides: teachers unions and the so-called reformers who oppose them.

The new group wants to unite the Democratic base and avoid the issues at the center of the party's education split. 

The PAC strategy is similar to how education reformers have influenced public policy toward their pet subject. But instead of harping on limiting teacher tenure and rating teachers in accordance with standardized test scores, they're focusing on friendlier, softer issues: expanding preschool, making college more affordable, and the DREAM Act, which would qualify immigrants in the country illegally for in-state tuition at universities. They have raised only $1,500, but want to raise $50,000 to create videos and rally volunteers. 

So Amalfard and Villalobos' motto appears to be: If you can’t beat 'em, join 'em.

Hours after Vice President Joe Biden announced he would not seek the nomination, they joined about 30 people in the 15th-floor mid-Wilshire offices of consulting group Propper Daley. Appearing with them was Clinton advocate and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D), and Steve Barr, the founder of Green Dot Public Schools and chairman of California Democrats for Education Reform.

Villalobos and Amalfard met in teacher training at their school in Washington, D.C. They bonded over the need for teachers to become more active in politics.

Villalobos is from Whittier, and talked about how his Latina grandmother was denied the right to sit in the front row of her chemistry class “because Latinas were not supposed to do well in schools,” he said. Amalfard, who is from Atlanta, says he’s particularly inspired by a student of his who was denied in-state tuition at University of Miami because she was undocumented.

“We are creating a broad coalition of people in the education world united behind these three issues that everyone agrees on,” Amalfard said. Amalfard is a Teach for America corps member, but he’s also his school’s union representative. 

But sometimes, a kumbaya approach to education steers discussion away from tougher issues. As previously reported, K-12 education doesn’t come up in presidential debates for a number of reasons. Perhaps most relevant to Clinton and the Democrats: The politics of K-12 education are volatile because of the split between unions and reformers.

Standing in the middle of that debate is Dean, who formerly led the Democratic National Committee. “I was a total union person,” he said in an interview. But recently, he warmed to policies that have been less than union-friendly. His views evolved when he visited the school of his son, a former Teach for America teacher, in New Orleans. He started rifling through students’ papers and discovered they were “functionally illiterate.”

That moment changed Dean’s mind. “I thought, we’re done with arguments about money,” he said. “We just need to make it better."

Clinton’s affiliation with the reform movement through her service in the Obama administration has made teachers more skeptical to her candidacy. The American Federation of Teachers, led by longtime Clinton ally Randi Weingarten, endorsed Clinton fairly early on. But she won the nod from the National Education Assn. — the nation’s largest teachers’ union — only after showing up to the group’s convention. 

So far, Clinton has been outspoken about the need for more preschool options and a plan to make college more affordable by largely eliminating debt. But neither of these issues are political minefields within the Democratic Party: It’s easier to root for tiny kids than wade into the debate on how teachers should be hired and fired. 

America’s Teachers visited Dean in his Washington, D.C., office, and he agreed to support them because as Teach for America and union members, “they’re the perfect example of how you can work together regardless of your background,” he said.

When pressed, Dean agreed that America’s Teachers’ desire to unite the Democratic base around education comes at the cost of eliding the tough issues that caused him to change his mind in New Orleans. Still, he said, “the most important thing is for the leaders in the middle willing to say to their respective sides, we gotta stop this."

You can reach Joy Resmovits on Twitter @Joy_Resmovits and by email at Joy.Resmovits@LATimes.com. 

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