by Tim Walker
On March 14, National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen García announced that the 3-million member union, the largest in the country, was proudly recommending former Vice President Joe Biden to be the Democratic nominee for President of the United States.
The recommendation was formalized first by a vote by NEA’s PAC Council, followed by a vote by the Board of Directors, two bodies that represent NEA’s broad and diverse membership. Eskelsen García made the announcement on Saturday to the union’s members via email.
“Joe is the tireless advocate for public education and is the partner that students and educators need in the White House,” Eskelsen García said. “He understands that we have a moral responsibility to provide a great neighborhood public school for every student in every ZIP code.”
NEA’s recommendation comes as the once-large field of Democratic candidates has been winnowed down to three candidates: Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii.
Every candidate running this year, Eskelsen García said, are all strong and vocal advocates for greater investments in our schools, higher educator pay, and quickly closing out the Betsy DeVos era at the U.S. Department of Education.
As the results from the 24 primaries and caucuses already held have made clear, however, Biden enjoys the backing of NEA members and voters across the country. His support is strong in urban, rural and suburban areas and cuts across racial, gender, generational and socioeconomic lines.
Biden’s plan for public education, released in May 2019, was praised by NEA for highlighting the need to expand community schools, address racial injustice, fully fund IDEA, triple the funds for Title I schools, and invest in children starting from birth, including high-quality, universal pre-kindergarten. Biden’s outreach to educators has been led in part by his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, an educator and NEA member.
“Biden is also committed to attracting and retaining the best educators by paying them as professionals they are and increasing funding for support staff and paraprofessionals,” Eskelsen García added. “And he will fire Betsy DeVos and replace her with an Education Secretary who comes from a public school classroom and believes that educators must have a seat at the table when crafting education policy.”
NEA’s presidential recommendation was a culmination of a highly-inclusive and transparent process that involved the deep engagement of its members across the country.
At every juncture of the 2020 presidential campaign season so far, NEA has provided educators with forums, tools and resources to help make their voices heard. At the 2018 NEA Representative Assembly, NEA collected “Ask the Next President” questionnaires in advance of planned candidate interviews and forums in 2019 and early 2020.
That was just the beginning.
In June 2019, NEA launched the 2020 Strong Public Schools web site, an information and engagement hub for the presidential campaign. Educators could ask questions of the presidential candidates, learn about their positions on the issues, access exclusive 2020 videos (including one-on-one interviews Eskelsen García conducted with the candidates, a prerequisite to be considered for NEA’s recommendation), learn how and where to attend campaign events’ and take action to support public education.
NEA members took it from there, empowered and engaged like never before. Over the past year, hundreds of thousands of educators and activists attending candidate forums, participating in town halls, digital activism, hosting house parties.
NEA represents 1 in 100 Americans, and 1 in 39 voters comes from an NEA household. Its members are located in every U.S. congressional district, including key battleground states, which makes them key electoral influencers. They have something to say and the candidates were listening.
This was strongly evident in July 2019 when nine presidential candidates assembled at the NEA Representative Assembly to make their case to educators at the first ever #StrongPublicSchools Presidential Forum. For two hours, NEA members asked questions about education funding, educator pay, school privatization, equity, gun safety, student debt, and, of course, Betsy DeVos.
Although NEA members undoubtedly had their preferred candidates, most came away impressed by the substantive conversation and the fact that – as Eskelsen García pointed out in her opening remarks – “the candidates were listening to you.”
The top candidates convened twice more to talk about education. In December, NEA and 10 other public education groups hosted a presidential forum moderated by MSNBC. In January, just a couple of weeks before the Iowa caucuses, four candidates spoke to Iowa State Education Association members at the 2020 ISEA Legislative Conference.
A Force to be Reckoned With
Over the past two years, educators, parents, and students in state after state took to the streets to demand greater investments in public schools. The #RedforEd movement has elevated public education as a top national issue, harnessed the energy of educators everywhere, in the process helping reshape the political landscape.
In the November 2018 mid-term elections, educator activists delivered in spectacular fashion, sweeping pro-education candidates – many of them former or current educators – into office at every level of government.
The 2018 election proved to be a turning point for public education and put any candidate with national aspirations on notice that educators were a political force to be reckoned with. “You can either work with educators to address the needs of students and public education, or they will work to elect someone who will,” said Eskelsen García.
In 2019 and 2020, educators in blue, red, and purple states alike have seen how engaging in and winning local and state elections have generated major victories for their public schools and students. Over the next few months, they stand ready to channel their enthusiasm to take on Donald Trump and defeat the anti-public school agenda of Betsy DeVos, said Eskselsen García.
“The #RedforEd movement has proven how the power of the NEA and the collective voice of our members to advocate for stronger public schools and opportunity for all students. Now, with so much at stake in this election, educators determined to use their voice to propel Joe Biden to the White House.”