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Why Teachers Unions Aren’t Backing Democrats Quite As Reliably

By Kyle Stokes

(From State Impact, September 10, 2012)

“It was the middle of July, and the race to represent Indiana’s 36th district in the state senate was heating up,” writes education reporter Joy Resmovits in a Huffington Post piece noting teachers unions aren’t backing down-ballot Democrats quite as reliably as they used to:

Incumbent Brent Waltz, an investment-banking Republican known for his fiscal conservatism, faced a challenge from Mary Ann Sullivan, a Democratic state representative who has helped launch several charter schools.

Then, something unexpected happened.

Faced with the choice of endorsing the Republican businessman or the school-savvy Democrat, the Public Action Committee of the Indiana State Teacher’s Association (ISTA) endorsed Waltz.

While the move by the state’s teachers’ union turned enough heads to make it seem like a rare occurrence, both national and local teachers’ unions have recently made endorsements and donations to some Republicans who speak and vote against their values. The GOP nods mark a divergence for the unions, which are typically among the largest Democratic donors.

Resmovits notes other endorsements of Republicans or other conservative groups in Idaho, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Alabama. The HuffPo piece continues:

“We are moving away from party affiliation, instead focusing on where these members supporting public education are,” Mary Kusler, NEA’s advocacy chief, told The Huffington Post…

This also means that the union has supported groups and candidates that call homosexuality and abortion sinful; authored voter suppression laws; tried to classify abortion as homicide; critiqued teaching evolution; and called Democratic leaders like President Barack Obama “Obummer” and socialist.

More simply, this means teachers unions are supporting a handful of members of a party that criticizes unions in its national platformas we touched on during the Republican National Convention. As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie told his fellow Republicans, “[Democrats] believe in teachers’ unions. We believe in teachers.”

Of course, the unions largely remain supportive of Democrats and support President Obama’s re-election campaign.

“Teachers unions contribute 95 percent of their funds to Democrats — a rate that’s above average among labor unions across the board,” writes Mike Beckel of The Center for Responsive Politics.

But unions like the ISTA breaking with candidates like Mary Ann Sullivan shows how difficult it is to paint education policies down partisan lines. Indeed, many teachers union sympathizers have even expressed only lukewarm support for Obama’s re-election.

“I am voting for Obama for a host of reasons. Education is not one of them,” New Jersey music teacher @jerseyjazzman wrote on Twitter.

Historian Diane Ravitch criticized Obama’s Education Secretary Arne Duncan for his stances, which lead many public education advocates to feel as though electing GOP candidate Mitt Romney would not change much about the current direction of the nation’s school policies.

As Indy Star ed reporter Scott Elliott notes, in the case of the Waltz endorsement, Democrat Mary Ann Sullivan had crossed the aisle to support Indiana’s new teacher evaluation laws (which the ISTA opposed) and charter school creation legislation (again, the ISTA opposed.)

In a contrast to Kusler’s words, the Indiana Democrats for Education Reform (INDFER) sent out a scathing press release saying the ISTA’s endorsement of Waltz “undermines [the union’s] credibility.”

“Waltz, vote after vote, has attacked public education in our state,” INDFER president Larry Grau wrote, “and pushed extreme positions that would harm teachers and their ability to succeed in the classroom.”