Hillary Rodham Clinton is a dear friend of a fiery teachers union leader, she speaks out against the bombardment of standardized testing that dismays educators, and she never misses a chance to say how enamored she is with those who teach.
Many teachers are less enamored with her, however.
One of the most hotly debated issues among rank-and-file educators this week is whether Clinton deserves their support. Many are saying no — or at least, not yet — and calling upon their state leaders to resist a move by the president of the union representing 3 million teachers to endorse Clinton.
They are deeply bitter about President Obama's education policies and fear Clinton would stay on the same path, which is championed by some of her ultra-wealthy friends and supporters, particularly Los Angeles philanthropist Eli Broad.
The pressure has been intense enough to prompt some notable defections in the National Education Assn., the largest labor union in the U.S., whose president is lobbying state chapters to line up behind Clinton when the organization considers an endorsement at a leadership gathering that starts Thursday.
The New Jersey chapter, one of the biggest, has said flatly it would not support the move. Massachusetts is joining it. Both want to wait. The Vermont chapter has already endorsed its native son, Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who is Clinton's top rival for the Democratic nomination.
Officials at the California Teachers Assn., the biggest and most powerful NEA chapter, say they are not instructing their representatives at this week’s leadership meetings on how to vote. But some of the most vocal opponents of a Clinton endorsement come from their ranks. They are expressing irritation with union leaders who cite internal polling data to suggest the membership squarely supports Clinton.
"The Obama administration's policies have been really destructive," said Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Assn., the state's NEA affiliate. "Our members want to hear that candidates understand that so-called education reform is really an attack on public education."
The council of 74 educators that oversees NEA’s political committee voted Thursday to endorse Clinton regardless. The full board of the association could give its blessing by Saturday, which would make the endorsement official. Union leaders who voted to endorse said they feared delaying would dilute their voice in shaping the policies that will ultimately be pursued by Clinton, who they expect will be the Democratic nominee. They also say she is the union’s best hope of keeping the White House from falling under the control of the GOP, which is particularly hostile to much of the union’s agenda.
Clinton talks about education a lot, but she does so cautiously. She has taken up some teachers union causes like championing collective bargaining and, just this week, a change in Obamacare to eliminate the so-called Cadillac tax on expensive healthcare plans used by many teachers. But she has been careful not to embrace union rhetoric when talking about the contentious Obama school accountability and choice initiatives proving popular with voters.
The disaffection is a major political problem for Clinton. Teachers have long been some of the most valuable boots on the ground for the Democratic Party, knocking on doors, making phone calls, getting out the vote. Democratic support for charter schools, harsh teacher evaluation models, and funding schemes that reward districts for cracking down when test scores falter have shrunk this volunteer army.
"There is a deep factional divide in the Democratic Party over teacher unionism," said David J. Menefee-Libey, a Pomona College professor who specializes in the politics of education reform. The teachers unions, he said, "did a lot of work to elect Obama. He turned around and appointed [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan, whose approach has been deeply antagonistic to unionized teachers. It is a difficult thing for them to forget."
The decision the NEA will make at its leadership meetings this week comes amid a backlash that its sister union, the smaller American Federation of Teachers, is still struggling with after its leaders endorsed Clinton early in the summer.
The reaction has been angrier and more energized than that union's leaders anticipated. Facebook lighted up. Nearly 5,000 teachers signed a petition demanding the endorsement be reversed, and members accused their president — Clinton friend, advisor and fundraiser Randi Weingarten — of cronyism and imperiousness. Weingarten is on the board of Priorities USA, the super PAC that has raised about $40 million for Clinton.
"The union's endorsement was done from the top, pretty much without debate," said Stanley Aronowitz, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York who writes frequently about organized labor. "This, from the union with the slogan 'Democracy in education.' … It used to be that if you had a dispirited or discouraged membership, they grumbled but let it go. With [the endorsement], the grumbling has manifested itself into insurgencies."
Many NEA members are demanding that their union not commit money and personnel the way the American Federation of Teachers did. They want any move to endorse Clinton brought before the full 8,000-member assembly, which could very well block it.
"Clinton's connections to the people who are involved in the education 'reform' movement are pretty clear and out there," said Peter Greene, a teacher and blogger in Franklin, Pa. "She has a lot of ties to the charter movement."
Activist teachers note that one of those ties is Broad, who is particularly reviled by the union rank and file. Broad has been a major force behind the expansion of charter schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District, which now has more of them than any other district in the country. He is leading an effort to more than double the number.
Charters are independently operated and exempt from some rules that govern traditional schools. Most are nonunion.
In making the case against further teacher union endorsements of Clinton, the blog Defend Public Education meticulously chronicled Broad's relationship with the candidate, going back to a visit Broad made in 1983 to the Arkansas home of Clinton and her husband, then-Gov. Bill Clinton.
Such doggedness does not surprise Menefee-Libey, who said the Broad plan is an "existential threat to unionized teachers."
"Clinton is doing her best to obfuscate," he said. "When it comes to questions of charter schools and carrying forward with the Obama administration's policies at the Department of Education, it is an open question where she is.... They want to nail her down."