WASHINGTON — The National Education Assn., ordinarily a potent force in Democratic presidential politics, has decided for the time being not to endorse any of the party's six 1988 contenders, the head of the 1.9-million-member teacher group announced here Thursday.
NEA President Mary Hatwood Futrell explained that although she considers all of the Democratic candidates strong supporters of education, "to date, no one has emerged from the group as front-runner."
The decision not to back any candidate was announced amid evidence of strong support for Illinois Sen. Paul Simon among members of the association's affiliate in Iowa, where the Democratic delegate-selection process begins next February.
39% Support Simon
A recent poll of the 30,000-member Iowa State Education Assn. showed that Simon had the support of 39%, while 32% were undecided and 14% were for Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, according to Ken Tilp, president of the Iowa group, who attended the meeting here. Simon also leads in other recent polls of the general Democratic electorate in Iowa.
Simon gets his backing from teachers because of his support for education measures in Congress and because "he gives the feeling of telling the truth," Tilp said. In the absence of action by the national organization, the Iowa group and other state affiliates are free to back a presidential candidate.
But Tilp said the Iowa group has no plans to endorse Simon. He cited the substantial number of members who are still undecided, and also cited criticism directed at the teachers and other special-interest groups for their early endorsements of Walter F. Mondale in 1984.
"We want our people to make their own decisions," he said. Rather than endorse a candidate for the presidential nomination, Tilp said, "We should let the public at large decide." That way, he added, the Democrats stand a better chance of picking a standard-bearer who can win the general election.
Futrell's recommendation that the national association not endorse a candidate, unanimously approved by the organization's political action council, came after an elaborate effort was made to study the candidates' qualifications and sound out the feeling of the group's members. Futrell said the council would meet again in February and then in April to review the decision.
Consideration of a possible endorsement was limited to Democratic candidates, Futrell said, because none of the six Republican contenders were willing to go through the organization's complete selection process, which included taping an interview and filling out a questionnaire.
"The Republicans rejected out of hand our endorsement," Futrell said. "I was extremely disappointed they did not become more involved. I find it incredible that they would reject 600,000 Republicans we have in our membership."
In 1984, the association endorsed Mondale for both the Democratic nomination and the general election, just as it had President Jimmy Carter in 1980.