Obama's Stimulus Reaps Rewards: Major Education Union Begins 2012 Endorsement

WASHINGTON -- The National Education Association’s decision on Friday to begin the formal process of endorsing President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign may be the most vivid demonstration to date of the political benefits of the stimulus package passed by the president.

During its annual meeting, the union’s political action committee issued a recommendation to its 3.2 million members that they back Obama in the 2012 campaign during representative assembly meetings that will take place this July. The timing was a bit head-scratching. Not only was the 2012 election roughly a year-and-a-half away, but the NEA was also beginning its endorsement process without knowing who the Republican candidate would be (let alone the full Republican primary field).

In an interview with the Huffington Post on Friday, the union’s director of campaign and elections, Karen White, explained that the timing of the endorsement was driven out a scheduling necessity. The NEA’s PAC meets yearly to make endorsement recommendations to the full assembly. That meeting took place on Thursday. Had state presidents not suggested a presidential endorsement then, a final vote would have only come when the assembly next met in July 2012.

“If there was going to be any action taken this calendar it had to happen this week,” she said, noting, with a tinge of regret, that the union had only had four months during the 2008 election to help campaign for Obama. Owing to that constraint, she added, the NEA’s state presidents made the calculation at their annual meeting on Thursday that no one currently in the GOP presidential field -- or in the field of potential entrants -- offered a more favorable platform for its members.

“Of the declared candidates and of the candidates out there, all have taken many positions that are either anti-union or public education,” said White. “Their positions in general do not fit in line with where the membership of the NEA.”

The decision to formally begin the Obama endorsement process, however, was not merely driven by field of unappealing Republican options.

The NEA has much to gripe about with respect to the Obama administration, chiefly, an educational reform agenda that puts heightened demands on teacher performance. “From time to time we have had some concerns about some of the administration’s policies,” said White. But the group has more for which it is grateful.

The stimulus package passed early in the president’s tenure sent $150 billion in new federal spending to school districts and universities. Then when that funding dried up in the summer of 2010, the White House and congressional Democrats moved to fill in the gap, approving $10 billion to prevent teacher layoffs as part of a $26 billion package in state aid.

A Democratic operative who consults with education-reform groups said that while the timing of NEA’s announcement was a bit peculiar, the explanation was simple politics. “The stimulus saved a ton of their members' jobs and the extension of state money last year has kept a ton of their members in the states employed," the operative said.

That may be a touch too cynical an explanation for the NEA to acknowledge publicly. But White herself did call the stimulus -- along with other achievements on health care -- a contributing factor in the union’s endorsement.

“Obviously the president and the Congress knew how critical it was to keep educators in the classroom to keep class sizes down… and so we clearly are very happy with that piece of legislation,” she said. “Had that bill not passed, class sizes would have skyrocketed, after school programs would have been cut.”