Teachers union trying to reach out to GOP But NEA's leadership has trouble persuading members to go bipartisan

August 09, 1998|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- After two decades as a major engine powering the Democratic Party, the country's chief teachers union is desperately trying to recast itself in a bipartisan light to the Republicans who control Congress.

But the National Education Association's leaders are having trouble persuading their 2.4 million members to go along as they make endorsements for this year's elections. That could mean the union will have few friends at the bargaining table when Republicans meet to set education policy.

In several congressional contests featuring relatively liberal Republicans -- such as Reps. Constance A. Morella of Maryland and Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut -- who would seem to be a natural fit in the union's push for bipartisanship, the NEA's local chapters have refused their support.

"Having promoted a Democratic majority for many years, they are now promoting a pro-education majority," said Ken Ruberg, a consultant for the union who is director of the Republican Mainstream Alliance, a moderate GOP group. "That change in mind-set is not achieved overnight."

The political disconnection between the union's state and local chapters and the leadership extends to other areas. This summer, NEA convention delegates surprised their leaders when they rejected a merger with the American Federation of Teachers, the NEA's primary rival, in a move that was designed to give educators a stronger voice.

10 GOP endorsements

In congressional races, local and state chapters make the recommendations, which are typically approved by the national leadership. Of the 246 candidates endorsed by the NEA so far this year, only 10 are Republicans. Ultimately, the union hopes to endorse 20 GOP candidates this year. In 1996, it backed one.

The push by the union's national leaders to find Republicans to support was followed by NEA President Robert Chase's decision to promote education reforms viewed skeptically by teachers in the past. The union backed some merit pay initiatives, advocated a review of some tenure policies and supported national tests to see how well students were being educated across the country.

Last year, the teachers union also decided to significantly revamp the questionnaire it distributes to candidates.

Gone are the queries on a host of social issues, such as abortion and the Equal Rights Amendment, that are important to many teachers but not directly related to education.

"It had every issue in the book," said Mary Elizabeth Teazley, the NEA's director of government and public affairs. "Unless you were a very liberal Democrat, you couldn't measure up on the issues." And that wasn't fair, she said, to the third of NEA %J members who surveys say lean Republican.

Lobbying against vouchers

Although the teachers union lobbies on a series of school-related issues, none is more keenly fought than vouchers, a program that would provide parents with a coupon toward the cost of private tuition worth the amount money spent per pupil at a public school.

The NEA says vouchers would sap widespread support for public schools, which handle 89 percent of students. But the union has been forced to rely on President Clinton's ready veto to prevent congressional Republicans from turning the voucher proposals into law.

While many state and local chapters have learned to work comfortably with Republicans in legislatures and governors' mansions, that trust has not bubbled up toward GOP members of Congress.

"The Washington people want to look more favorably on the Republicans than some locals do," said Stanley Aronowitz, a social historian at the City University of New York, who has

written extensively on the political presence of unions.

If the NEA fails to appear receptive to GOP lawmakers, several Republican operatives say, the union could find itself without champions when congressional leaders meet to hash out policy.

"Our goal is to make the best education possible within the reach of every child," said Mary Crawford, a spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "Everybody who wants to join us in that, we welcome their support. If they want to oppose us on it, then we'll fight them every inch of the way."

To the union's national leadership, Morella is an obvious choice in her bid to win a seventh two-year term representing most of Montgomery County. NEA officials hail her voting record on educational issues, and the union's political action committee has contributed $1,500 toward her primary race.

"I would give her an A," Teazley said. "From a lobbyist's perspective, we have an incumbent member of Congress who '' has fought for us."

But this summer, Morella fell short of the necessary 58 percent support during the endorsement session of the Montgomery County Education Association, the local chapter of the teachers union. Some teachers strongly backed civil rights activist Ralph G. Neas, Morella's most formidable Democratic challenger.

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