In a foretaste of the political battles to come this fall over education, Vice President Joseph R. Biden told the nation's largest teachers union that presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney and his party do not respect the work they do.
"Gov. Romney is a good man. ... I assume he cares as much about America and the education system as I do. But the fact of the matter is, we have a fundamentally different view," Mr. Biden said in a speech at the National Education Association's annual conference meeting in Washington. "He doesn't think that you all know much about how to educate. His allies characterize you as not caring about students, but caring about yourselves."
As the largest labor union in the nation with more than 3 million members, the NEA has long been a force within the Democratic Party and a key constituency for Mr. Biden's and President Obama's re-election hopes.
Mr. Biden found a friendly audience among the nearly 10,000 NEA members in attendance, many of whom wore "Educators for Obama" T-shirts and chanted "four more years" as the vice president finished his remarks.
While the vice president tailored his speech as a middle-class rallying cry, the Romney campaign on Tuesday countered by charging that Mr. Biden and President Obama have bowed to big labor while failing to improve the future job prospects of American students.
"Instead of putting students first, Vice President Biden and this administration have stood with union bosses," Romney spokesperson Amanda Henneberg said. "Instead of creating good jobs for graduates, this administration has presided over one of the bleakest jobs markets for young people. Mitt Romney has the plan and record to put students first and make sure that they have a job waiting for them when they graduate."
The speech was a key opportunity for Mr. Biden to rally the party's labor allies, still reeling from a crushing defeat in last month's attempt to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. The first-term Republican, who clashed fiercely with public-sector unions shortly after his election, defeated Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in that contest, with a margin of victory even larger than Mr. Walker's initial gubernatorial win in 2010.
Mr. Walker drew the ire of the NEA and other unions after implementing limits to the collective bargaining rights of state workers, including teachers. Critics say his policies have stripped instructors of their right to negotiate fair wages and benefits, while supporters point to the fact that the Badger State has gone from having a significant budget deficit to boasting a surplus, due in large part to the collective bargaining changes that lowered state costs.
But Mr. Biden said teachers are "under full-blown assault" by Mr. Walker and other Republicans, charging that the GOP believes teachers and other public workers are responsible for the fiscal challenges facing virtually all state governments.
"They don't understand why you chose to teach in the first place. Honest to God, I don't think they get it," he said. "They make you fall the guy. They should be thinking of ways to make your job easier, not more difficult."
While labor unions still carry significant political clout, the NEA is experiencing a steep drop in numbers. The organization reportedly has lost 100,000 members over the past two years, and expects to lose another 200,000 by 2014. The defections amount to about $65 million in lost revenue, Education Week reported.
The union blames the economic crisis for the losses, as well as political attacks on labor by Republicans.
"The real problem is the profiteers and mega-rich Wall Street folks who created an economic crisis that has our country and the world reeling. The solution isn't to attack educators," NEA President Dennis van Roekel said Monday. "The election this year is critical for public education, and it's also turning point for the middle class in America. ... We must do everything we can to re-elect President Barack Obama."
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