Teachers aim to make their presence felt at Democrat convention

If there were any doubts that teachers had graduated from local school board issues to national politics in 1980, they will be dispelled next week at the Democratic party's presidential convention.

The group of 455 teachers going to San Francisco as delegates or alternates is larger than that representing any other labor, special-interest group, or state. For the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers it represents the largest effort ever by educators to shape national politics.

The hefty contingent of teachers guarantees that education issues - as seen by representatives of the NEA and AFT - won't be overlooked in the Democratic Party platform, even though education has subsided as a national campaign issue in recent months.

But another group of teachers and school officials not associated with the NEA or AFT are concerned about another issue, one not likely to be raised on the convention floor: the politicization of education. Teacher involvement in partisan politics has gone too far, they say, and political concerns threaten to crowd out more important school issues.

''Such national partisan endorsements place an educator in a compromising position,'' says Scott D. Thomson, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. ''You're stuck with the foreign, the economic, the health policies of the Democratic Party.''

More serious, though, says Mr. Thomson, such endorsements ''limit the role of the teacher'' as a citizen-model to students. Partisan endorsements raise doubts in the eyes of the taxpaying public and in the eyes of parents who have children in public schools, especially if they are undecided on whether or not to send their children to private schools. Parents question the critical and independent thinking of teachers if teachers have been spoken for already by their national organizations, he says.

At the convention, the main concerns teachers will raise are: increased federal aid to education, no tuition tax credits for families using nonpublic schools, strong reservations about merit pay for teachers, and a strengthened role for the Department of Education.

Mary H. Futrell, president of the NEA, sees education as perhaps the strongest domestic plank Vice-President Mondale can run on. Clearly, a strong education plank and a pro-education administration is what her organization wants, but NEA goals touch many other camps, she says.

When you look at ''labor groups, at women's groups, at civil rights groups, there is a primary focus around education issues as well,'' says Ms. Futrell. Education ''supports as well as transforms'' each of these groups to a better life. Mondale has ''a realistic education program that is also visionary'' and these groups can get behind him on this, she says.

But the movement for school reform on such matters as education spendng, tuition tax credits, and merit pay extend well beyond the White House and there are many in agreement with the President's positions says Larry Uzzell, president of Learn Inc., an education foundation in Washington, D.C.

''I see the stridency by these powerful organizations (NEA, AFT) giving people the impression that the unions are claiming exclusive access to their children's education,'' says Mr. Uzzell. This is detrimental to the need for educational reform that was so prevalent a year ago and which seems to be getting lost in partisan politics and public apathy, he says.

''For some time we've been watching the teachers' unions become a one-party union,'' says Chester E. Finn, Jr., a professor of Education and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University. ''Ninety percent of the time they throw all of their eggs in the Democratic basket.'' This means that if a Republican wins, there is ''no debt, no sense of obligation, no gratitude to the organizations representing teachers, (with the danger of this) ultimately coming back on teachers and students.''

Within the broad norms of the cultural center, says Denis P. Doyle, director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, the public knows what it expects of teachers. They expect teachers to behave as ''we remember our better teachers to have (behaved) when we were in school.'' He sees the preprimary endorsement of Walter Mondale by the NEA and the AFT and their national organizing efforts on his behalf as ''a critical error in tactics and judgment over the long haul.''

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