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With time running out, teachers push pro-Obama message in swing states Ohio, Florida

Sarah Butrymowicz / The Hechinger Report

The American Federation of Teachers launched a multistate bus tour this weekend, spending the first leg of their trip in the important battleground state of Ohio.

CINCINNATI, Ohio – In the swing states of Ohio and Florida, it’s crunch time for teachers unions, which in the final days of the campaign are getting out the vote for President Barack Obama in droves – even though they disapprove of some of his policies.

"The arguments have been made,” American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten said as she mingled with fellow union members in Cincinnati last weekend and talked up the importance of the election.  “This trip is about mobilizing and getting out the vote.”

Weingarten is urging members in both states to donate time to Obama’s reelection campaign by join canvassing and phone banking efforts. The AFT, along with the larger National Education Association (NEA), has organized pro-Obama events across the country for months. With just about two weeks to go until Election Day, Weingarten’s bus tours in Ohio and Florida are an attempt to rally teachers for a final push.

The traditionally strong relationship between teachers unions and Democrats has been strained in recent months. The tensions came to a head last month in Chicago, when union members went on strike, in part over tying teacher evaluations to student test scores. They went up against Obama’s former chief of staff, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In some cases, unions are even supporting Republicans this election cycle.

For the most part though, the unions are still throwing most of their money and manpower toward the Democrats, who have also supported policies they like – including a bill to hire nearly 300,000 more teachers, which was scuttled by Republicans in Congress. Weingarten and NEA President Dennis Van Roekel have portrayed Obama as someone who genuinely cares about education and Romney as someone who will gut the public system in favor of privatization. 

Other teachers agree. “It could be a whole lot worse,” said Wellyn Collins, a retired teacher in Cincinnati, of Obama’s first term. “There are a lot of people that have a lot of enthusiasm for reelecting the president.”

Ohio is a hugely important swing state in the tight race between Obama and Republican candidate Mitt Romney. No president has won without the state’s 18 electoral votes since 1960.

“This election will be decided in O-H-I-O,” Weingarten said to a group of members just outside of Cincinnati on Friday. “Can we find it in ourselves to volunteer to knock on some doors? Can we find it in ourselves to volunteer to call some people?”

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Both national teachers unions, which have a combined 4.5 million members nationwide, have requested that their members donate time to support union-endorsed candidates. Historically, teachers unions have been a large player in politics because of their deep coffers and thousands of members, who can be mobilized for get-out-the-vote efforts.

This year, the Ohio Education Association (OEA), the state affiliate of the NEA, is asking its 124,000 members to spend an hour or two of time calling potential voters, knocking on doors or attending a rally. All 26 offices across the state have phone-banking stations set up.

The union also mails fliers to their members urging them to support all the candidates the OEA has endorsed – and not just at the polls. President Patricia Frost-Brooks says she counts on teachers talking about the election with friends and community members as informal, word-of-mouth campaigning. Frost-Brooks, for example, goes down her Christmas card list, sending out notes explaining why she’s supporting certain candidates.

But neither union mandates any political involvement, and there’s no guarantee all – or even most – of the unions’ members will contribute to the get-out-the-vote efforts.

In Cincinnati, the Ohio Federation of Teachers (OFT) hopes that at minimum, 1 percent of its members will volunteer for a one- to three-hour shift recruiting voters. The union currently has about 5 percent of its members in the area participating in the “Walk, Talk or Pay” program, but Cincinnati leader Tom Frank is hopeful that number will be closer to 10 percent by Election Day.

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Yet some union members in the area not only refuse to give their time to Obama, they won’t vote for him either.  “We have a very conservative [section] within our union,” Frank said. He said his goal is to persuade this group not to vote for Romney, because, Frank says, the Republican candidate gives too much support to charters and private education.

Many of Frank’s most dedicated volunteers are retired teachers, who have more time to give. The OFT held a summer training session for retirees to prepare them to organize and motivate other volunteers.

Collins, who attended the training session, spends six days a week talking to would-be voters to explain why they should vote for Obama. She says the effort feels worthwhile when she’s able to persuade someone to register who wasn’t planning on voting at all.

A native of Kentucky, which has been a reliable Republican stronghold in the last three presidential elections, Collins often misses home – except during election season. “It’s the one time I really am happy I’m an Ohioan,” she said.

This story, "With time running out, teachers push pro-Obama message in swing states," was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education-news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.