Teachers Union Leader Weighs In On Democratic Contenders For President

The country's largest teachers union isn't ready to pass judgment on its favorite presidential candidates -- but the process of making contenders work for the union's blessing is well underway.

After meeting with three out of four democratic presidential candidates, Lily Eskelen García, the president of the National Education Association, "absolutely" thinks education issues will play a major role in the upcoming election.

"Because so much of education policy -- more than any other time in our history -- has come from the federal government in the last two administrations, it is going to be a question that’s on the table: what are you going to do to improve teaching and learning?" García told The Huffington Post Thursday after meeting with presidential contenders Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders.

García separately interviewed the former Maryland governor and the current Vermont senator Thursday as part of the NEA's endorsement process for the 2016 presidential election. Last week, she interviewed Hillary Clinton. The full videotaped interviews, which will eventually be made available to all NEA members, are supposed to help the organization decide who they should support.

The interviews were scheduled after the NEA sent questionnaires about education issues to all viable 2016 presidential contenders, whether or not they'd formally announced they were running. The three democratic candidates are the only politicians to have completed the survey so far.

O'Malley emphasized the importance of educating the "whole child," according to excerpts of the meeting released by the NEA.

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Former Governor Martin O'Malley meets with National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García on Monday. Photo: National Education Association.

"We need to do a better job of listening to the people who are doing the job. I’ve never believed one could make teachers the enemy and expect to improve student and classroom outcomes," O'Malley said. "Increasing the frequency of tests doesn’t necessarily increase the quality of education. We have to be mindful of the whole child--their development, their nutrition, their health. Learning is about more than that feedback loop of tests and quizzes."

Sanders, also in excerpts from the interview, talked about the need for a "political revolution" that better serves the middle class. He also described his desire to get rid of The No Child Left Behind Act once and for all.


Senator Bernie Sanders meets with National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García on Monday. Photo: National Education Association.

"As I sit on the Senate education committee, it’s fair to say that there are few people on the committee who are as opposed to No Child Left Behind and as opposed to this absurd effort to force teachers to spend half of their lives teaching kids how to take tests," Sanders said. "If I have anything to say in the coming months we would end NCLB."

The Bush-era law emphasizes standardized testing and consequences for schools whose students score poorly. Although the law expired in 2007 and has yet to be reauthorized, it still in effect in some states. The Obama administration has been working around the more cumbersome aspects of the law through a patchwork of waivers provided to states.

Last week Clinton also expressed dissatisfaction with the current standardized testing system.

“Are tests important? Yes. Do we need accountability? Yes. But we’ve gotten off track in what we test and what we test for that we sacrifice so much else in the curriculum, in the school day and school year," she said.

García told HuffPost she was impressed by different aspects of her interviews with O'Malley and Sanders -- though she would not say which candidate she preferred.

She appreciated O'Malley's understanding that it "takes more than a test score" to measure student learning or teacher success and his personal discussion of college affordability.

"He spoke as a dad, and said, 'here's what I know it cost me to put my kids through college, how does an average middle class family –- a family living paycheck to paycheck, working hard, how do they put enough away?'" García said. "I appreciated that he could use a very personal family experience; I think that’s what people are looking for too. And I think that spoke well of his ability to connect with educators."

Sanders spoke about his desire to work with educators, not for them, in a way that treated them as collaborators in a shared struggle -- something that impressed García.

"I think that's something you don’t hear a lot of politicians say... 'I can't do it alone,'" García said.

The NEA got started on its 2016 endorsement process in March.

"It is not too early to be thinking about who the next president of the United States is going to be, even though it's one and a half years away," García said then. "We know that educators have to step up and have our voices heard in this 2016 presidential election."

It's clear, she said, that candidates are interested in winning the union's favor. During the 2014 midterm elections, the NEA spent about $40 million in an effort to get union-friendly candidates elected.

"The fact that these three very viable, important candidates have said, 'One of our first stops is going to be to the NEA, we want them to understand how important education is to us' -- there's no other reason why someone would come by the NEA unless you wanted to make the case 'I've got some ideas on education,'" she said.



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