Pittsburgh Teachers Union’s PA-Gov Endorsement Is a Safe Move – and a Bad Move

In my education politics news roundup this week, I noted that the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers has endorsed U.S. Representative Allyson Schwartz for the Democratic nomination for governor of Pennsylvania. Without knowing any of the internal discussions or consideration that led to this decision, I think this was a mistake, and I hope that my union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, does not replicate it.

When a group like a union makes a political endorsement, I believe it is trying to accomplish two things. One, it wants the see that the winner of the race is someone who is already inclined to support the same things that it wants. Two, it wants the winner of the race to feel like it helped the winner to win, so that the winner will continue to be responsive to the group’s desires. I think these are both appropriate things to do, given our electoral and political system. There are always tradeoffs to be made in policymaking, and interest groups are constantly competing to make sure that they are on the right side of those tradeoffs. It would be foolish to assume that any officeholder is an automaton who can somehow make policy decisions from a position of true neutrality, so competition of interest groups is what we have.

Given those two needs, I have been wondering what Schwartz brings to the table that other Democratic candidates do not. I have lived in Schwartz’s district since before she won the seat, and I honestly do not remember education being a particularly vital issue in her campaigns. My own mental associations with Schwartz are more focused on women’s rights and health care issues, along with a slight tendency toward the moderate side of the Democratic economic spectrum. But my memory might be faulty, so I tried to find some examples that Schwartz is a strong supporter of the kinds of education policies that would benefit teachers and students in districts like Pittsburgh.

Charter school expansion tends to be a hot-button issue within Democratic circles, with some Democrats more inclined to favor creating more charter schools and others opposed. Since the charter school funding system is one of the major things that have contributed to Philadelphia’s funding problems, I did a Google search for “Allyson Schwartz charter schools.” In ten pages of results, I found a number of stories relating to the current campaign, but the only thing I found about Schwartz’s record on education was that she voted in favor of a Republican-authored bill called the Empowering Parents through Quality Charter Schools Act. This bill, which did not pass the Senate, “encourages states to support the development and expansion of charter schools,” according to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Granted, it passed 365-54, so it’s not like it was a contentious vote. But the National Education Association did oppose the measure, so at the very least I would say that Schwartz was not being a leader on the issue from the public school side.

Again, I don’t put a lot of stock in this one vote. I do put stock in the fact that this was the only story I found about Schwartz and charter schools. Furthermore, in the Pittsburgh union’s press release, the union does not cite any particular action that Schwartz has taken in her congressional or state legislative career to show leadership on the issue of education. I did another search on “Allyson Schwartz health care,” and within two pages of results I found articles citing her role in developing tax credits for medical research and an interview where she discussed her work on health care in Congress. At the end of that interview, she was asked about her priorities and she said:

Fiscal responsibility. This government has borrowed and spent money we simply don’t have. We need to work toward a balanced budget to reduce debt because if we don’t, we’ll leave it to our children and grandchildren. Restoring integrity, finding common ground, facing challenges from economic competitiveness to access to health care, to safety in the world; those are the broad themes I’m interested in. As a member of the Ways and Means Committee, I will play a role in expanding access to health care and making sure we meet our commitment to seniors and to reimburse our hospitals and physicians. I’ve also been engaged in some of the issues around energy – I have some legislation to promote energy efficient commercial buildings and also dealing with global warming and energy independence.

Do you see education anywhere in that paragraph? I don’t. Now compare the Health Care issue page (t pages of updates) on her congressional website with the Education issue page (two pages of updates). Which one looks like it’s been a priority during her time in Washington?

Now, even if Schwartz hasn’t been a leader on education while in Congress, I could understand endorsing her if she had come out with a strong position on education that set her above all of the other candidates. But I don’t see how that’s true either. The union’s release cites the education plan that she recently released that would push to expand access to pre-K and reverse the Corbett budget cuts. Those are certainly good things, but Schwartz expects to take a long time to accomplish either task – she’s clearly not making it a day one priority. Again, looking at her website and Twitter feed, she doesn;t seem to be talking about education very much.

Other candidates have been much more forceful in talking about education. Former environmental protection secretary John Hanger has made multiple tours of the state in a school bus; participated in a hunger strike over Philadelphia budget cuts; has constantly highlighted the poor academic record of cyber charter schools that drain funds from districts; and made reversing the Corbett cuts a centerpiece of his economic plan. State Treasurer Rob McCord has been talking about public education since the second he got into the race last month, and although he has not released a plan he did answer the Keystone Politics questionnaire which goes into detail on education. Former revenue secretary Tom Wolf has highlighted the education issue on his website. To me, any of these three candidates are better choices for a candidate who will emphasize public education in the upcoming campaign and (hopefully the administration to follow.

So what is the Pittsburgh union hoping to achieve with this endorsement? Again, I have no inside knowledge, but I wonder if it’s not along the lines of my second reason. Schwartz is currently the leader in many polls for the primary. By getting on board with her campaign now, perhaps the Pittsburgh union is hoping that they will have some clout if she becomes governor. If that is the reason, I think it is shortsighted politically. Organizations like EMILY’s List backed Schwartz very early. If she wins, those are the groups that will have the most pull. If union support could help push someone like Hanger or McCord into the lead, then those candidates would have much more reason to be supportive once elected. Endorsing a front-runner is a low-risk, low-reward move. Endorsing someone who comes from behind is higher-risk, but high-reward. Given the state of public education in Pennsylvania, I think we need to take some chances and make some bold moves.

Let me make something clear here. I am not attacking Schwartz. If she wins the nomination, I will absolutely support her against Corbett. But in a primary election, you have room to dream a little and push for your ideal candidate, not the one that your party has agreed on. If I were a health care organization or a women’s rights organization, I would probably be breaking down doors to support her campaign. But while I see Schwartz as a decent candidate for education, I don’t see her as a great one. And right now, finding and supporting a great candidate for education should be a priority for every teacher and education advocate in this state.