Degree Year

2015

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Bachelor of Arts

Department

Politics

Advisor(s)

Chris Howell
Paul Dawson

Keywords

Education policy, Teachers unions, Unions, Democratic Party, New Democrats, Education reform, Electoral endorsements, Democratic primaries, New York, Rhode Island, Gubernatorial primary

Abstract

This thesis examines how teachers unions choose to endorse political candidates in a Democratic primary. I will argue that teachers unions are powerful enough that they are able to choose between Democrats based on their education policy positions, rather than making endorsement decisions based on candidates’ positions on general labor policy. Although teachers unions act with the ultimate goal of promoting their members’ interests as employees, the distinction between acting with a primary interest in education policy instead of a primary interest in labor policy is an important one. The distinction is significant because disagreement about education policy currently represents one of the most pronounced divides in the Democratic Party, with teachers unions staunchly pitted against education reformers. My thesis contributes to the larger question of whether or not teachers unions can effect change in education policy outcomes through their political power in the electoral endorsement process. This thesis is grounded in the historical relationship between Democrats and the labor movement in the United States, and in the development and politicization of teachers unions in the second half of the 20th century. I test my thesis with two case studies of democratic gubernatorial primaries that are clear examples of competitive elections where education policy played a role: the 2014 elections in New York and Rhode Island. I have found that teachers unions are capable of swaying policy positions at the electoral margins—that is, that they may exert a decisive influence in a tight race in which two candidates have markedly different perspectives on education policy. Overall, however, teachers unions are neither capable of setting a campaign’s political agenda nor of setting the terms of discussions surrounding education policy.

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