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August 4, 2015

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Upset over education bills, teachers pass on endorsing John Oceguera

John Oceguera

John Oceguera

If Assembly Speaker John Oceguera gets into Congress, it will be without a letter of recommendation from the teachers.

Feeling burned by policy changes that eroded long-held rights for teachers, the Nevada State Education Association passed over the Democrat in his 3rd Congressional District race against Republican Rep. Joe Heck, R-Las Vegas. At a board meeting last month, the teachers union recommended no endorsement in the race.

The union is the state affiliate of the National Education Association, which supported the union’s stance. At the state union’s recommendation, the NEA has endorsed the other major Democrats running for Congress in Nevada, including state Senate Majority Leader Steven Horsford, former Rep. Dina Titus and Rep. Shelley Berkley, D-Las Vegas.

Lynn Warne, president of the state union, said some of the bills Oceguera pushed through the Legislature “struck at the heart of what are labor rights, teachers’ rights. Currently, where (Oceguera) is with his political career, his aspirations, we couldn’t endorse him to our national organization at this time.”

Warne singled out a bill Oceguera co-sponsored that takes away tenure from teachers who have two consecutive years of inadequate evaluations. The union wanted teachers to have the right to a hearing.

Warne said the group did not interview Heck because he did not fill out a candidate questionnaire.

In a toss-up congressional district, in a year when national Democrats hope to flip control of the House of Representatives, the teachers union sitting on the sideline speaks to how bitter last year’s legislative session was for teachers.

It could also be politically costly. Teachers are often the most personal face of government.

During the 2011 session, some Democrats broke with leadership to vote against some of the education legislation.

“If we piss off the teachers, then we are a defunct party,” Assemblyman Tick Segerblom, D-Las Vegas, said in March 2011. “They are our backbone.”

Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval made “education reforms” a priority during the session, but the bills that passed had to be shepherded by Democrats, who controlled the Assembly and Senate. In fact, Democrats pushed for changes once championed by conservatives, like making it easier to dismiss new teachers, lengthening their probationary period and including student test scores in teacher evaluations.

Some teachers saw it as the outgrowth of a national wave of education reforms, from the federal “Race to the Top” competition to the movie “Waiting for Superman.”

“We supported the majority of the reform bills,” Warne said. “There were a couple of sticking points where there was no compromise to be had. They were real line-in-the-sand issues for us. We told Assemblyman Oceguera, and he chose not to modify the bills.”

Oceguera’s campaign manager, Adam Weiss, said that Oceguera “is both a strong supporter of teachers and the investment in education. John worked diligently to include all stakeholders and ultimately do the right thing for Nevadans.”

The campaign did receive a contribution from the American Federation of Teachers, a separate labor group that is not affiliated with the Nevada State Education Association and represents no educators in Nevada.

Heck’s political adviser, Ryan Erwin, said he couldn’t speak specifically to why they did not fill out the teachers union survey.

“We don’t fill out a lot of surveys. Congressional campaigns are sent literally hundreds of surveys,” he said.

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