Send In The Goons! And, Why Eyes Are On The Wrong Ball

En passant AFTie One-L confirms the existence of teachers’ union goons, this will no doubt be disconcerting to the Eduwife.

But good a time as any to mention that almost everyone on teachers’ union watch around the ’08 Democratic primary is looking in the wrong place. The parlor game is about which candidate, or potential candidate, will have the most cachet with the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

Yet the union is very unlikely to get too involved in the primary* and similarly very unlikely not to support the ultimate Democratic nominee. A good model is the ’04 race where the union asked candidates to submit to an interview and then rated them acceptable or unacceptable. Only Senator Joe Lieberman earned an unacceptable rating, presumably because of his support for school choice and generally maverick instincts on education. And yes, you read that right, the organization representing most of the nation’s teachers felt that Rep. Dennis Kucinich and Al Sharpton were more fit to serve as President of the United States than Lieberman…

Anyway, rather than national, the action is mostly in the states, especially early primary states. Getting the support of the state teachers’ unions can mean bodies, access, publicity, etc…resources that are valuable in these primaries (though as Howard Dean found out, not invincible…his relentless slashing on No Child Left Behind didn’t really pay off with voters). So in terms of candidates currying favor, staking out positions that play to or against type with the unions and so forth, that’s the ball to watch. But of course, if you’re pro-reform there is nothing to worry about there because the state teachers’ unions are cornucopias of progressive reform ideas!

A candidate who succeeds without strong teachers’ union backing can find themselves freed up to stake out bold positions on the education issue since — despite occasional head fakes — the unions will almost certainly prefer the Democratic nominee to the Republican one on a host of issues when push comes to shove. John Kerry had this opportunity in 2004 but didn’t leverage it to full advantage. Voters want independent candidates, change oriented ones, and ones who will make tough stands. On education there is a powerful mantle to be grabbed there and one that reinforces other values. Also, in terms of currying favor versus currying reform, there is also a little bit of “stag hunt” going on and some group benefit if the candidates act strategically, though don’t hold your breath.

*Update: Mike Antonucci notes that the NEA is considering hatching some sort of kangaroo court endorsement convention. I remain skeptical this will amount to much beyond a PR sideshow because why would state leaders want to give up some real power they have now unless it is taken from them…? Of course, there could end up being consensus, an ideal outcome for the NEA, but state leaders have a lot of juice…And worth pointing out that I think the environment has changed and the idea that teachers move in lockstep is wrong. This is about activists and bodies, which can help generate votes, rather than actual votes.

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