NEA-Alaska, an 11,500-member union of teachers and support staff, decided Saturday not to endorse either major gubernatorial candidate, although a committee that interviewed the candidates seemed to prefer Fran Ulmer.
On Saturday in Anchorage, about 40 members of the union's political action committee interviewed Democratic nominee Ulmer and Republican nominee Frank Murkowski.
"We decided not to make a recommendation in the race," said NEA-Alaska President Rich Kronberg. "It's not because we didn't find differences in the candidates. But we determined we would be more effective, if we didn't make a recommendation, to educate our members and the public where the candidates stand on the issues."
In a statement, the union said Ulmer's "activism at the state level over the past decade has won her great support within the education community, and our (political action committee) members will return home to engage our members on her behalf."
Ulmer spokesman Jason Moore said the campaign wasn't surprised by the decision not to endorse a candidate. It's been the union's recent practice not to do so.
"If their candidate didn't win, some felt there were repercussions for the union," Moore said.
The Murkowski campaign said in a prepared statement that he spoke to the committee about his goals of providing full and equitable school funding, improving teacher recruitment and retention, maintaining school buildings, encouraging parental choice within the public school system, providing more vocational training, and holding teachers, students and parents accountable.
Among other questions, the union asked candidates if they supported legislation to inflation-proof education. The state has said inflation eroded its education funding by about 25 percent between fiscal 1990 and 2000.
Murkowski, a U.S. senator, rejected an inflation-proofing law but said he would seek "full and adequate funding" with an annual goal of meeting or exceeding inflation, the union said.
"His position is we ought to be focused on the need schools have and fund for that and not have an automatic inflation adjuster," Kronberg said.
Ulmer, the state's lieutenant governor, said yes to inflation-proofing, Kronberg said. She said she would push for an immediate $13 million increase in state education funding.
"If we can't keep up with (inflation), the quality of our schools, what we can pay our teachers, will slowly erode," Moore said.
The union committee also asked the candidates whether they supported holding a constitutional convention soon, and whether they would work against any effort that emerged from such a gathering to use public funds for private schools through vouchers or tax credits.
Both opposed holding a convention and said they would work against vouchers, Kronberg said. That's the union's position, too.
The union asked Ulmer and Murkowski how they would implement the new federal education law, informally called the No Child Left Behind Act. Among other elements, it requires schools to use qualified teachers and test students more, and gives parents the right to send their children to other public schools if theirs is failing.
NEA-Alaska is concerned that Bush schools won't be able to meet some of the provisions. It's not reasonable to expect a rural teacher to be certified in the four subjects he or she may teach, Kronberg said as an example.
Ulmer and Murkowski said there are problems with implementing the law in Alaska and would seek exemptions or changes to it, Kronberg said.
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