WASHINGTON – Filling in for John Kerry (search), Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (search) told teachers from the nation's largest union Tuesday to support the Democratic ticket if they want enough money to make school reforms work.
"There's a reason that the majority of Americans did not vote for George W. Bush the first time around," Clinton said to roughly 9,000 delegates of the National Education Association (search). "And boy, do we have more evidence about how right we were. If he were one of your students, you'd be sending home notes to his mother: 'Dear Mrs. Bush, he never admits when he's wrong. You really have your work cut out for you.'"
Clinton was a last minute stand-in for presidential contender Kerry, who canceled his speech at the NEA annual meeting to join up with his newly announced running mate, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. Clinton, senator from New York and former first lady, had the teachers' spirits soaring after a big letdown earlier.
Kerry's schedule change had left the teachers without a chance to hear from the presumptive Democratic nominee just one day after they endorsed his candidacy. Before the substitute speaker was announced, NEA President Reg Weaver acknowledged the anger of many union members including himself but said it would not distract them from pursuing their election-year agenda.
"There will be nothing that will be so disappointing that it will take us away from what we need to do for the rest of the year," Weaver said, referring to the union's drive to raise membership, get more federal money behind education and close the achievement gap between white and black students.
Most of the NEA's members are women and Democrats, and they treated Clinton as if she were the presidential candidate as the surprise guest entered the convention hall. She drew enormous cheers. Dozens of teachers left their seats to get near the stage to take pictures.
Clinton said Kerry and Edwards would put more money behind after-school programs, school construction and academic improvements that schools must make to comply with federal law. President Bush and congressional Republicans say they have spent record amounts on schools, and parents are tired of schools getting ever-increasing flows of tax money without showing better results.
The NEA delegates gave Kerry a slightly smaller vote of support Monday — 86.5 percent — than Al Gore and Bill Clinton got during their presidential runs. Weaver said after the vote that members are just getting to know Kerry, a senator from Massachusetts, but they are "peaking at the right time."
Eddie Davis, an English teacher and president of the NEA affiliate from Edwards' home state, said he wasn't worried that teachers would resent the Kerry no-show. "Our brief disappointment today will not overshadow our enthusiastic support of the Kerry-Edwards ticket," he said.
The endorsement by the 2.7 million-member union of teachers and other school workers put a headline on the NEA's campaign for more education spending and changes in the nation's far-reaching education law.
The NEA is targeting its political staff in 15 swing states, going into schools to rally members and helping to sponsor a night of house parties to elevate education as a political issue.
Members figure that in turn, a Kerry administration could restore the union's access to the White House and advance its agenda on issues such as overhauling student testing and halting any federal drive for private-school vouchers.
Kerry has made teacher-friendly promises the union likes, but he also proposes ideas the NEA long has opposed, such as paying bonuses to teachers based on how well their students perform on tests.