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NEA Endorses Barack Obama
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Almost 9,000 delegates met in Washington, D.C. over the 4th of July weekend for the 3.4 million-member teachers union's annual Representative Assembly. After effectively "waiting out" the long tug-of-war for the Democratic presidential nomination, the National Education Association (NEA) endorsed Sen. Barack Obama on July 4. 79.8% of NEA delegates voted to endorse Obama. That number is actually somewhat low by NEA standards: 86.5% voted to endorse John Kerry in 2004, 89.5% to endorse Al Gore in 2000, and 91.5% to endorse Bill Clinton in 1996.

Obama addressed the nearly 9,000 assembled delegates by satellite on July 5. The crowd roared when Obama criticized the No Child Left Behind Act for forcing teachers to "teach to a test at the expense of music and art." Opposition to the law has gathered strength with each year since it was passed in 2001, and criticizing NCLB is now guaranteed to please any NEA crowd.

Obama won a standing ovation for his plan to provide "Teacher Service Scholarships." Under this plan, taxpayers would pay the full tuition of any college student who then spent four years teaching in a high-need location or subject area. "If you commit your life to teaching, America will commit to paying for your college education," promised Obama.

The crowd booed loudly when Obama mentioned his support for merit-based pay for teachers. The NEA opposes merit pay, favoring salary increases for all teachers, not just for those who take on extra responsibilities or who raise students' scores on standardized tests.

"I know this wasn't necessarily the most popular part of my speech last year," said Obama, "but I said it then and I say it again today because it's what I believe." Last year, when Obama addressed the annual meeting in person, teachers also greeted his mention of merit pay with boos.

The senator mentioned his support for charter schools, another education reform unpopular with the NEA. Delegates responded with cold silence.

USA Today editorial writer Richard Whitmire wondered about Obama's willingness to incur the NEA's wrath by mentioning two of its pet peeves. "Obama and his advisers may be concluding that the leftward drift of the NEA has pushed it closer to political irrelevancy," Whitmire speculated. "Giving the cold shoulder to charter schools? Even four years ago you could get away with that, but high-performing charter schools in cities such as New York are giving meaning to the words 'equal opportunity' for poor and minority students."

Whitmire also remarked on Obama's decision to address the union by satellite rather than in person. "If the NEA is the political boss of bosses, why did Barack Obama conclude recently that Montana hay-bale campaigning was far more urgent than flying to Washington to speak directly to 9,000 fired-up teachers endorsing him?" (Politico.com, 7-10-08) Obama apologized with the excuse that he was "hunting for votes here in formerly red states."

NEA leaders said they also invited Sen. John McCain to speak before the annual meeting, but he declined. A McCain spokesman criticized Obama's education record and his speech to the NEA. "On the issues most important to Americans, Barack Obama's arguments are built on lofty rhetoric and empty words, so it's no coincidence that a major education magazine [Education Week, 3-7-07] noted that during his entire career Barack Obama 'hasn't made a significant mark on education policy.'"

About a week later, Obama told another group of teachers that McCain's "only [education] proposal seems to be recycling tired rhetoric about vouchers and school choice." This time, Obama was accepting the endorsement of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), America's second-largest teachers union. The AFT endorsed Hillary Clinton last fall, and transferred its endorsement to Obama on July 13 at the union's national convention in Chicago.

Some AFT members complained about Obama addressing them, as he did the NEA, by satellite. Obama pleased the AFT, however, by reaffirming his opposition to private school vouchers. "We need to focus on fixing and improving our public schools, not throwing up our hands and walking away from them," he said. In February, Obama had told a Milwaukee newspaper that he would be open to the idea of private school vouchers if research showed they were effective. His campaign quickly issued a contradiction, and since that time Obama has spoken out repeatedly against vouchers.

AFT teachers did not boo when Obama mentioned charter schools and merit pay, although some expressed concern over these measures to the press.

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