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Teacher unions smarting after many members vote for Trump

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 11/27/2016 Greg Toppo
Hillary Clinton addresses the crowd inside the Reynolds Coliseum on the campus of North Carolina State University for the final campaign stop before election day, in Raleigh, North Carolina, on November 7, 2016. © LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images/File Hillary Clinton addresses the crowd inside the Reynolds Coliseum on the campus of North Carolina State University for the final campaign stop before election day, in Raleigh, North Carolina, on November 7, 2016.

WASHINGTON — Two weeks after Republican Donald Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton in the Nov. 8 presidential election, the USA’s teachers unions are wondering what happened to their chosen candidate — and how so many of their members could have voted for her opponent.

Despite early and eager endorsements of Clinton by both unions, the nation’s school teachers and other school workers contributed substantially to Trump’s Nov. 8 win.

How substantially? About one in five American Federation of Teachers (AFT) members who cast a ballot voted for Trump, the union’s leader estimated. Among the larger National Education Association (NEA), which comprises more than 3 million members, more than one in three who voted did so for the billionaire developer, early data show.

AFT President Randi Weingarten, whose union represents about 1.6 million teachers and other workers, said some of the reason for Clinton's defeat was timing — and perhaps sexism. 

“Frankly I was always concerned about whether the country was ready to have a female president,” she said. “There was an intensity of hatred that male political figures never get. So I think we’re never really going to understand it.”

Most of the USA’s largest labor unions endorsed Clinton as early as 2015, including NEA, AFT, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the International Brotherhood of Teamsters and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Despite the support, Clinton won union households nationwide by just eight percentage points, exit polls show: 51% to Trump’s 43%.

Clinton carried white, college-educated women, but just barely: 51% to 45%. Among white women without a college degree, Trump won resoundingly: 63% to Clinton’s 34%.

In that sense, teachers, who at last count were about 82% white and 76% female, actually outperformed other groups when it came to their support for Clinton.

Weingarten last week said internal figures show that Clinton earned about 80% of her members' votes, in spite of a “very effective” effort to disparage the former secretary of state’s character.

At NEA, an aggressive member-to-member campaign and strategic political effort actually did get out the vote for Clinton, officials said: As late as last September, nearly 60% of its members identified as “Republicans or independents.” At the time, Clinton’s NEA support stood at just 58%. By Election Day, it rose to 65%.

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, a former Utah teacher, said that despite Clinton’s loss, the union engaged members in “record levels of activism," supporting down-ballot candidates and initiatives "important to students and working families.”

Among other efforts, unions defeated a well-funded charter school expansion effort in Massachusetts and helped ensure the continuation of a tax hike to fund education in California.

NEA's state and national political directors met in Nashville last weekend to figure out what comes next, and educators nationwide are waiting to find out who President-elect Trump names as education secretary.

On Wednesday, school voucher advocate Betsy DeVos said in a tweet that she would work with Trump to "make American education great again."

In a statement, García said NEA will “listen closely” as Trump lays out his education vision. “We haven’t heard any specifics from the incoming administration about education policies, so we can’t speculate further,” she said.

In an interview, Weingarten said she had “no regrets — absolutely no regrets” about the union’s endorsement of Clinton, adding that Democratic runner-up Sen. Bernie Sanders “was never tested or vetted by anyone, and frankly we have no idea whether he would have actually been able to get through this crucible … either.”

She added that Clinton “has spent her life fighting for families and children — and that’s what we spend our life fighting for. Were there mistakes she made? Of course. Were there mistakes we made? Of course. But she is someone who for 30 years has been in the service of the public and incredibly qualified.”

Follow Greg Toppo on Twitter: @gtoppo

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