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Hillary Clinton could position herself to the left of Obama on education

Hillary Clinton looks to side with teachers unions in the education reform debate.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has her picture taken with Keenan High School graduate Dayzjohna Roberts at Kiki's Chicken and Waffles restaurant in Columbia, S.C., May 27, 2015. (Photo by Chris Aluka Berry/Reuters)
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has her picture taken with Keenan High School graduate Dayzjohna Roberts at Kiki's Chicken and Waffles restaurant in Columbia, S.C., May 27, 2015. 

Hillary Clinton told members of a powerful teachers union in Washington D.C. this week that organized labor has an important role to play in public education, and that critics of unions are “dead wrong to make teachers the scapegoats."

The American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second largest teachers’ union, met with all three declared Democratic presidential candidates to consider endorsements (former Rhode Island governor Lincoln Chafee had not yet announced). Each candidate spent an hour meeting with the union’s executive council and members who were invited to ask questions.

Teachers unions have lately found themselves in the crosshairs of many education reform activists and Republicans, who see the unions as caring less about educating children than protecting themselves. Reformers tend to favor charter schools, which are often not unionized, along with stricter teacher testing standards, and less employment protection for educators.

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In the meeting with AFT Tuesday, Clinton in particular faced numerous questions on hot-button issues in public education, according to AFT president Randi Weingarten. “Secretary Clinton got a lot of questions about testing, and about the very granular aspects of public education, and she clearly had spent a lot of time thinking about it,” Weingarten told msnbc in an interview Wednesday evening.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who declared his presidential run Saturday, noted that his daughter is a teacher and an AFT member. "How do you improve public education if you vilify and turn into enemies the teachers that are responsible for our children?" he said.

Former Sen. Bernie Sanders, who announced his run last week, called for more spending on education and highlighted his plan for free public college education. "Why in God’s name is there any school in America talking about cutting back?”

But it was Clinton whom AFT members wanted to interview most, Weingarten said, and the candidate who got the most questions about public education reform.

Clinton has not yet said publically where she comes down on key issues like teacher testing, but suggested she leans to side with unions. “It is just dead wrong to make teachers the scapegoats for all of society’s problems. Where I come from, teachers are the solution. And I strongly believe that unions are part of the solution, too,” she said.

As first lady of Arkansas, Clinton’s husband appointed her to lead a comprehensive overhaul of the state’s public education system, which included a push for mandatory competence testing for teachers. That made her a top enemy of teachers unions, but animosity did not last long. Once in the White House, Clinton was given NEA’s “Friend of Education” award and called school vouchers -- the education reform idea du jour -- "dead wrong.”

Along with free trade policy, public education reform is one of the more divisive issues inside the Democratic Party. And like trade, it's an issue where Clinton might seek to position herself to the left of President Barack Obama.

Teachers’ unions, which tend to support Democrats, strongly supported Obama's reelection in 2012, but have also clashed with his Education Department at times. Last year, tensions came to a head around a landmark court ruling in California that overturns provisions to that protect teachers.

Organized labor vigorously opposed the ruling, and were outraged when Education Secretary Arne Duncan offered some praise for it. In the wake of the ruling, the members of the nation’s largest teachers union, the National Education Association, voted to call for Duncan’s resign. AFT stopped just short of that, saying he needed to improve -- or quit.

When asked about about the ruling last year, Clinton said she hadn’t read it so couldn’t comment, but warned the education debate was turning “toxic.”

This uniquely emotional issue has the potential to reignite in the Democratic primary if candidates take different positions on these issues. 

But the bigger threat to unions is Republicans, like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who have railed against unions. AFT this year invited Republicans to participate -- none responded.

“I find it really disrespectful,” said Weingarten. She reserved special criticism for George Pataki, who earned an endorsement from teachers unions as New York governor.

AFT endorsed Clinton in 2008 and Weingarten is a longtime Clinton ally, who last year joined the board of the main super PAC supporting the former secretary of state. Weingarten praised Clinton's depth of knowledge on the subject, but said the decision on endorsements will not be made by her alone and that all candidates have a chance. 

The union group did not discuss the way members were leaning after this week’s meetings. There’s no timetable for an endorsement, but AFT does plan to endorse during the primary process.