Friday, May 25, 2007

Democratic Candidates Speak with the AFT

Last week I attended the AFT Executive Council meeting. It was interesting to watch local union presidents jockey to submit amendments to various rules and adopt positions. Not to mention interest generated by some fairly shallow banter on charter schools (yes there are plenty of union folks who abhor charters, but to be fair there are plenty that have come around), and a rather contentious but short-lived "yea" vote to add an influential NED member to the AFT council. The highlights of the day came with several visits from Democratic Presidential Contenders (R’s were invited, but shockingly didn’t attend).

I caught former Senator John Edwards, Governor Bill Richardson, and Senator Barack Obama’s speeches and Q&A with the crowd. I missed Senator Clinton’s speech. The candidates’ talks were substantial in length—around 45 minutes or longer including questions from the crowd. Each came with a different approach and salved the crowd in their own way. All claimed to support labor without condition. All claimed to support NCLB, with numerous caveats.

John Edwards appeared to strike a chord with the crowd. He hammered home his commitment to labor. It may have been the most pro-labor statement a serious presidential candidate has made in years. He was funny and appeared committed to expanding the reaches of organized labor through federal law.

Governor Richardson highlighted his strong commitment to education, standards, and the successes he’s governed over in New Mexico. He relied heavily on the competition argument that’s been so popular since Friedman discovered the world is flat. He appeared strongest on education of the three with the most nuanced understanding of the landscape, but weakest on organized labor.

Senator Obama hopped into that third little bed and found it just right (Goldilocks and the Three Bears reference). The senator found a nice balance between supporting labor and improving the life chances of children long ignored by our educational system. He advanced his credibility with the group with his stories of his first job walking the streets of Chicago as an organizer. When pressed by a union president on charter schools, the Senator did not retreat, citing the need for more oversight and accountability, but also the need for alternatives where the traditional school systems have failed.

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