updated 7/5/2004 4:32:15 PM ET 2004-07-05T20:32:15

The National Education Association, the nation’s largest union, endorsed Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts for president Monday, the final touch in its campaign to drive up school spending and reshape the biggest education law in decades.

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The NEA, a 2.7-million member group composed mainly of teachers, is out to advance its agenda on everything from testing students to halting private-school vouchers. The union is mobilizing its money and forces for Kerry — targeting political staff in 15 swing states, going into schools to rally its members and joining liberal groups to organize a massive night of political house parties.

Kerry, who is scheduled to speak Tuesday to the 9,000 delegates at the NEA convention, was endorsed by 86.5 percent of them. He offers many teacher-friendly promises the union likes, but he also advances ideas the NEA has long opposed, such as paying bonuses to teachers based on student test scores.

Although a quarter of NEA members identify themselves with the Republican Party, the union has never endorsed a Republican for president and typically spends $9 out of every $10 it raises on Democrats. Its relationship with the Bush administration has been particularly prickly since his education secretary, Rod Paige, jokingly referred to the union as a “terrorist organization” and even annoyed members with how he apologized for the remark.

The NEA’s leanings have been clear at its annual meeting, right down to one of the ways it is raising money for its political efforts: selling tickets to a post-Kerry speech showing of “Fahrenheit 9/11,” the scathing documentary about Bush’s move toward war. Filmmaker Michael Moore granted the NEA access to the film.

“I’ve been in this business for a long time, and I have never seen the huge amount of Americans who are dissatisfied with a sitting president,” NEA President Reg Weaver said after the delegates voted.

A quietly potent issue
To the public, education is behind the Iraq war, terrorism and jobs as a voting priority. But it could make the difference among key groups, such as Hispanics and married women with children, political strategists say.

At the heart of the political debate in education is No Child Left Behind, the law championed by Bush and supported by Kerry in 2001. It requires a highly qualified teacher in all core classes, expanded standardized testing, more choices for parents and public reporting of how well all major groups of students perform. Schools that get money from federal anti-poverty programs but do not make enough progress face penalties.

The union opposes several aspects of the law, from the special rules given to teachers in alternative training programs to federal spending that, while at record levels, falls well short of the maximum allowed.

Kerry says he supports changes, such as reducing a reliance on high-stakes tests in determining school progress and enforcing graduation requirements he says Bush has ignored. He pledges to fully fund the law.

Yet Kerry is also out to send a politically centrist message of accountability and show a little distance from the union, calling for tougher teacher certification tests and faster dismissal of poor teachers.

Bush, meanwhile, is credited with helping Republicans take a Democratic issue by making education a key part of his 2000 campaign and pushing through a law that demands more attention on the poor and minorities. Republican strategists say his focus on closing the learning gap and empowering parents could work to his advantage. They also say Kerry’s views on the law reflect a pattern of waffling, this time on holding schools accountable.

The union, which prides itself on being run from the bottom up, called its support for Kerry a “recommendation,” not an endorsement, to avoid appearing that it was telling its members how to vote in November.

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