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November 10, 2008

1)  NEA's True Service to Democrats: Incumbency Insurance. There is no question that last Tuesday's election results came as close to a total victory for the National Education Association as one could possibly expect. Its presidential candidate won an electoral landslide. Its Democratic majorities grew stronger in both houses of Congress. Of all the ballot initiatives across the country that received NEA and affiliate support, I could find only three in which the union side was defeated. Two of these occurred in California – Prop 8 (gay marriage) and Prop 9 (crime victims' rights). Both passed despite opposition from the California Teachers Association, but neither has a direct effect on public education or organized labor. The only other defeat was the passage of Amendment 54 in Colorado, which bans political contributions by contractors or organizations that do business with the government. A court challenge has already been filed.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel lauded the victories. "NEA members played a vital role in critical congressional races across the country that helped expand margins in the House and Senate for pro-public education allies," he said in a press statement. "As a bipartisan organization, the National Education Association was pleased to return many friends from both sides of the aisle to Congress and elect new ones as a part of a growing Democratic majority."

Aside: If you parse that last sentence, you get NEA "as a bipartisan organization" being pleased about "a growing Democratic majority."

Along with everyone else, NEA believes its "vital role" requires some form of compensation. Merit pay, you might call it. And there are already fights in the blogosphere about how well-deserved it is.

I don't find persuasive the argument that the efforts of NEA, or any other union, were so far superior this election cycle than previous ones that it resulted in an Obama victory or additional seats. But it is indisputable that NEA played a "vital role." It's just not the role you might believe.

The union's political action committee will laud its 79% success rate in electing recommended candidates. You have to go inside the numbers for the real story. While some of the results may change, for the purposes of this article I am going to assume that whichever candidate is ahead right now in the too-close-to-call races will end up winning.

The NEA Fund for Children and Public Education recommended 328 candidates for Congress, of whom 260 won. It's impressive, but not that impressive.

Of those 328 candidates, 230 were incumbents, of whom 39 ran unopposed. NEA's record in those races was 226 wins and 4 losses, dropping only Florida 16th, Kansas 2nd, Pennsylvania 3rd and Texas 22nd.

NEA recommended 38 candidates for open seats, and its record in those races was 20 wins and 18 losses.

NEA recommended 60 challengers, and its record in those races was 14 wins and 46 losses, which was actually better than usual.

When people criticize the teachers' unions as being defenders of the status quo, they generally mean the status quo as it applies to education policy and labor affairs. It seems, however, that NEA's power and influence among Democrat politicians (and some Republicans) is due to its defense of the political status quo. For example, virtually all of its ballot initiative victories were on the "no" side.

The union's ability to capture open seats or defeat incumbents is no better than that of many other special interest groups. There is little reason for a new candidate to seek out NEA support instead of support from other ideologically compatible groups. But once elected, staying on NEA's good side is a path to easy money and campaign support for a friendly politician.

With Democrat incumbents impervious, the battles continue to be fought over marginal GOP seats. When these are lost with some regularity, some safe GOP seats inch over to the marginal column and you end up with decades-long Democratic majorities in Congress.

2)  NEA Officers Really Worked the Cabbie Vote. Last week, EIA noted the efforts of NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen to win over the key Ethiopian cab driver bloc in both Colorado and Minnesota. The union has since corrected the story, although you can still read the original via Google cache.

No sooner was this settled when I received the November/December 2008 issue of the ISEA Communiqué (no relation), the organ of the Iowa State Education Association. In it, ISEA President Chris Bern wrote a column with the understated headline, "This election determines your future."

Most of the column details Bern's encounter with a Des Moines taxi driver and their discussion about teacher quality and pay. Bern was upset with himself because the cabbie claimed to be a lifelong Democrat, but "couldn't vote for anyone who was going to raise taxes."

"It was at that moment," Bern wrote, "that I realized I have been living in education isolation. For the past three months, almost all of my conversations about the election have been with people who work in education. I have my education talking points about Barack Obama down pat, and since the caucuses I really hadn't paid much attention to issues other than education. I was reasonably sure that Obama was not advocating for raising everyone's taxes, but I didn't want to make any misstatements either."

Fortunately the discussion never turned to Ethiopia.

The cabbie conversation is a well-worn journalistic tradition, but I wasn't sure where NEA picked it up. Until I saw this.

3)  Last Week's Intercepts. EIA's blog, Intercepts, covered these topics from November 3-10:

* The Return of Hans Moleman! Now more than ever.

* Obamoney. "Seeing government as the most effective solution" for our problems. Apparently Marty Hittelman has never mailed a letter or visited the DMV.

* Next Secretary of Education? Who Cares? Who created NCLB? Hint: It wasn't Rod Paige.

4)  Quote of the Week #1. "Doesn't make any difference who controls Congress, who's in the White House. The government just grows and grows, remorselessly. Every two years, the voters walk out of their town halls and school gyms and tell the exit pollsters that three-quarters of them are "moderates" or "conservatives" (i.e., the center and the right) and barely 20 per cent are "liberals." And then, regardless of how the vote went, big government just resumes its inexorable growth…. It's hard for Republicans to hammer Obama as a socialist when their own party's nationalizing the banks and its presidential nominee is denouncing the private sector for putting profits before patriotism." – Mark Steyn. (November 8 National Review Online)

Quote of the Week #2. "We've had nearly three decades to educate the electorate about freedom, responsibility, and the evils of collectivism, and we responded by creating a big-city-public-school-system of a learning environment." – P.J. O'Rourke (November 17 Weekly Standard)


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