Last week’s Politico story (Hillary Clinton’s union problem) generated a predictable amount of attention and pushback — especially from NEA and AFT national unions:

“Simply put, Politico got the story wrong,” said Carrie Pugh, NEA director of Campaigns and Elections, in an emailed response. “Yes, of course there are educators who support Bernie Sanders. But in state after state, week after week, and survey after survey, our members overwhelmingly support Hillary….Unfortunately, and misleadingly, the story cherry picks data points to advance a false narrative. “

But it isn’t just union leadership who feel the story wasn’t very helpful: “Is the story accurate? As far as it goes,” wrote union observer Mike Antonucci. “Is it balanced? Sure. Is it complete? Not even close.” 

Antonucci describes the Politico story as “a summary of dueling talking points without context.”

Understanding where teachers and their unions stand on the Democratic candidates is an important issue for readers and journalists who are increasingly being asked to cover the complicated politics surrounding education issues. So let’s take a look at what the Politico story said and how it seems to reflect the reality on the ground.

As you’ll see, the story seems full of holes and problems — some of them raised by observers who aren’t particularly supportive of teachers unions or Clinton. In particular, the piece uses one state’s exit polling numbers (Wisconsin) but ignores others (Nevada, Ohio) that don’t fit its storyline.

The gist of the Politico piece is that, while the two teachers union nationals had endorsed Clinton, there were problematic numbers of teachers who supported Sanders and who might not work hard for Clinton if she won the nomination: “The only hitch in Clinton’s plans to rally this vital Democratic constituency: Teachers aren’t fully on board.,” noted reporter Maggie Severns. “Bernie Sanders netted more money from people who listed themselves as teachers and educators than Clinton in February, according to a POLITICO analysis of FEC records.”

The Politico piece quotes Marla Kilfoyle, executive director of the activist group Badass Teachers Association, notes that Sanders “won 54 percent of union households to Clinton’s 46 percent” according to exit polls in Wisconsin, and describes how, “in several places, entire union chapters and organizations are helping organize for Sanders.”

Specifically, Politico cites UC-AFT and the CORE caucus within the Chicago Teachers Union.

To its credit, the story does note that the larger Chicago Teachers Union has not endorsed a candidate, and no other big-city union locals are mentioned. And it includes the unions’ version of events: The NEA estimates nearly 20,000 members have helped campaign for Clinton, and the the New York state affiliate of the AFT is opening nine offices to help Clinton win next week’s primary there. 

Antonucci notes that some of these union talking points  don’t make much sense to him. Early endorsements helped shape the primary. “I don’t even know what that means.” Leadership traveling to primary states to rally teachers. “Then why is she losing the union household vote, or only winning it by small margins?” Nearly 20,000 members helped the Clinton campaign. “That’s less than one of every 150 members. What are the other 149 up to?”

Still, there are numbers not included in the Politico story that suggest Clinton is not fairing as poorly as the story may suggest. Other than Wisconsin, the Politico story doesn’t include any other exit poll numbers. But a quick search turns up statistics that don’t seem to match Politico’s narrative.

Sanders may outpoll Clinton in Wisconsin, but the case appears to be otherwise in other states like Nevada (see numbers below).

Ditto for Ohio below:

Exit polls can be notoriously inaccurate and misleading, but if you’re going to use them why not use a sample rather than a single example — especially if it doesn’t reflect a broader reality?

There aren’t any public polling or voting data on teachers specifically, alas, allowing both sides to make claims that can’t be verified (and encouraging reporters to go with anecdotes and impressions rather than broad-based data). 

Even union critic Rishawn Biddle doesn’t seem to think much of the piece.  “The story does hit upon the reality that there is some real divide and frustration within the memberships of both unions over who to endorse in the Democratic presidential race,” notes Biddle, who has written several pieces about the Clinton-AFT connection at Dropout Nation. “Whether or not that frustration matters, given the reality that neither NEA nor AFT would have endorsed a Republican candidate, is a much-different story.”

Politico declined to respond to concerns about this piece.

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Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.