CHICAGO -- Curtis Rock, an elementary school teacher in Foley, Minn., wants to help elect Al Gore president but concedes it won't be easy, even if a majority of some 3 1/2 million teachers follow up on their union leaders' embrace of the vice president.
''Making an endorsement isn't enough,'' said Rock, a Democrat who will spend the summer telling others in his small town how the vice president's education platform is more important than the Clinton administration scandals that Republicans are trying to tar him with. ''We have to provide reasons to back it up.''
Last week, the nation's two major teachers' unions officially threw their weight -- and potentially hundreds of thousands of political activists -- behind Gore. The larger group, the National Education Association, has 2.5 million members, or nearly 1 in 100 Americans.
The NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, with about 1 million members, are political forces in states with hot congressional races, ballot initiatives and the potential to turn the presidential contest. Michigan, with a school voucher initiative and competitive Senate race on its ballot, has 183,000 union teachers who could be stumping for Gore.
''This is no longer a year where you can sit back and say 'Oh well,''' said Regina Finch, who has taught 26 years in Harford County, Md. ''Teachers had better get involved in this election because anything that affects the country affects the educational system.''
Like Rock, she's spending the summer ''answering questions from fellow teachers about why I support Al Gore.''
''Teachers take the time to get involved,'' Rock said, acknowledging that being off for three months as most of them are makes it easier. ''It's a perfect time that leads us into the fall election.''
Rock lives in a community of 2,000, where he says educators' opinions are still respected by other residents because ''teachers will do the research.''
Teachers supporting Texas Gov. George W. Bush are speaking up, too. A minority among the delegations this week at the NEA's convention here and at the AFT gathering in Philadelphia spoke out against Gore's anointment.
''I think he's choosing topics to gain favor of educators because we have such a big union,'' Judy Bruns, a middle school teacher from Coldwater, Ohio, said of Gore.
Bush, the expected Republican presidential nominee, is not only strong on education, she said, but he also is the candidate for Republican teachers or those who base their vote on socially conservative issues like abortion, religion and gun owners' rights.
Stanley Nowak, a retired teacher from Buffalo, N.Y., said despite the overwhelming exuberance for Gore at the NEA meeting, a growing minority of teachers this summer will swim against the tide.
''I will not tear Bush down because he was not endorsed by the NEA,'' said Nowak, who taught 34 years in Buffalo and is active in Republican politics there.
NEA President Bob Chase has said his union is endorsing more GOP candidates this year in races for governor and seats in Congress. But he said a GOP presidential candidate has never completed the union's questionnaire and interview process required for endorsements.
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