Originally created 08/25/96

Teachers unions send many delegates to convention



There will be a different brand of Chicago boss influencing the goings-on at this year's Democratic convention - teachers.

When Democrats gavel in their national convention Monday, members of the National Education Association will account for about 400 delegates and alternates, and the American Federation of Teachers another 150.

In total, they'll provide about one in eight elected attendees.

Supporters say the teacher union muscle provides a counterbalance to the religious right influence in the GOP, where nominee Bob Dole has proclaimed plans to install a form of school choice that many education groups vehemently oppose.

"I am sure every single NEA member who ran as a delegate is acutely aware of the Christian Coalition and the religious right," said Kay Pippin, a lobbyist for the Georgia Association of Educators, an NEA affiliate. "We're talking about the destruction of public education."

The state Christian Coalition vice president, Linda Hamrick, said that the NEA "is radical and it doesn't care about children."

NEA officials are reaching out to Republicans, and say 34 of their members were delegates to this year's GOP convention in San Diego. The union's polling shows a third of its 2.2 million members are Republican.

But the organization and its affiliates regularly provide one of the biggest blocs of delegates to the Democratic National Convention and millions in campaign contributions.

"The teacher's union is an arm of the Democratic Party," said Jacksonville, Fla., state Rep. Stephen Wise, a Republican and onetime NEA member, who has battled teacher's unions opposed to his pilot school voucher program.

Mr. Dole, the former U.S. Senate majority leader, singled out the teachers unions for a slap during his Aug. 15 speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination.

"To the teachers unions I say, when I am president, I will disregard your political power, for the sake of the children, the schools and the nation," Mr. Dole told GOP delegates in San Diego. "I plan to enrich your vocabulary with those words you fear - school choice, competition, and opportunity scholarships - so that you will join the rest of us in accountability, while others compete with you for the commendable privilege of giving our children a real education.

"There is no reason why those who live on any street in America should not have the same right as the person who lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue - the right to send their child to the school of their choice."

Jack Pacheco, NEA lobbying manager for the eastern United States, figures Mr. Dole was merely playing up to the right wing of the Republican Party that dislikes unions and supports using public tax money to send children to private schools.

"We were obviously disappointed by what Senator Dole did. It was an attempt to separate our members from our organization, when in fact our members are our organization," Mr. Pacheco said. "We think Senator Dole is out of step with (Republican) party members."

Cathy Kelly, assistant executive director of the NEA-affiliate Florida Teaching Profession, called it "a blatant attack on public school teachers."

The NEA released a poll in San Diego showing that even Republican conservatives favor increasing or maintaining federal funding for the public schools, preserving the U.S. Department of Education and using tax dollars to improve public schools.

NEA officials said they supported members becoming delegates to the GOP convention, but found the process the party used to select representatives cumbersome.

Even before the convention, however, the nation's largest teacher's union voted overwhelmingly to endorse President Clinton for re-election.

Officials with both the NEA and AFT said they are sending more delegates nationally this year to the Democratic convention than in 1992.

In Georgia, where the NEA affiliate, the Georgia Association of Educators, is the second-largest teacher organization, the union has at least 12 delegates and alternates in Chicago this week.

Ms. Pippin, the Georgia group's chief lobbyist, said NEA delegates help influence the party's philosophy on education and the platform of principles adopted at the convention.

"Historically, there has been strong support for public education within the Democratic Party," Ms. Pippin said. "Obviously, more and more of our battles at the national level have been in opposition to positions taken by the Republicans.

"Democrats oppose money for private schools, oppose vouchers .°.°. Democrats and a major Democrat, President Jimmy Carter, established the Cabinet-level position of education secretary," she said. "Republican leadership has been committed to destroying that position and the Department of Education."

One of the most hotly contested battles between Republicans and Democrats has been over vouchers - providing public money to parents to help them pay for their child's private school education.

In Georgia, supporters have pushed the issue all the way to the state Supreme Court, where a voucher case is pending.

However, in the Georgia General Assembly, which is dominated by Democrats, voucher bills are virtually dead on arrival.

Critics point a finger at teacher groups for killing voucher legislation.

"They control the issue, there is no question about it," said Matt Glavin of Southeastern Legal Foundation, which is providing lawyers in the Georgia school voucher lawsuit. "School choice is the NEA's worst nightmare come true because it opens the door for accountability, and that's the last thing the unions want."

In Florida, where the Democratic Party state chairwoman, Terrie Brady, lobbies for the Duval (County) Teachers United, Wise spent more than two years working on a pilot voucher bill he said "made sense" financially and didn't take gobs of money from public school systems.

But his attempts to get the measure through the Legislature failed.

Wise figures the unions are afraid giving parents financial help to send their kids to private schools would weaken the organizations' hold on education purse strings.

"It breaks their financial monopoly, and that's why they are upset," he said.

But polls have raised serious doubts about whether the public wants to spend tax money on private school tuition.

"What it really boils down to is even among Republicans, there is not enough support to pass it through the Legislature," said Kelly.

Kelly's organization is sending seven members to the Democratic convention, which she said is probably down from 1992.

"The biggest problem we have had here is that school has started," she said. "Sometimes teachers can take time off. Most teachers felt it would be just too difficult for them to be gone at this time in the school year, at the beginning of the school year."

The largest teacher organization in Georgia, the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, doesn't push members to run for spots on the convention delegation.

"We don't do that stuff. We're nonpartisan," said Tim Callahan, PAGE's communications director.

Mr. Callahan said the partisan activism of Georgia's NEA affiliate has helped PAGE recruit members who don't want to become tangled in party politics.

The question is, should one interest group, in this case the teachers, have such a huge bloc of delegates at either party's convention?

"It's a mistake from a party perspective," Mr. Wise said.

Convention guide
Here is a quick guide to the Democratic National Convention:

Monday: Paraplegic actor Christopher Reeve and handgun control activist Sarah Brady will address the convention. A tribute to the late Commerce Secretary Ron Brown, who died in a plane crash in April, will be shown.

Tuesday: First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and Tipper Gore are featured speakers. Indiana Gov. Evan Bayh will deliver the keynote address.

Wednesday: Vice President Al Gore and Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd will address the convention. President Clinton's name will then be put officially into nomination, followed by the roll call of state delegations.

Thursday: Mr. Clinton will accept the renomination for president.