As the first Democratic debate approaches, members of the National Education Association – the largest labor organization in the US – is split over which candidate they should support in the upcoming presidential election. They’re not the only ones. In general, union leaders are endorsing Hillary Clinton, while rank-and-file members are more inclined to support Bernie Sanders.

It is unusual for a union to support a candidate so early in the process, but the NEA leadership has stated that it wants to identify the potential winner early on in order to “play a significant role in the next administration’s conversation and decision-making about public education.” What is more telling, however, is why the leadership settled on Clinton:

Clinton is the best positioned candidate to win both the Democratic primary and general election. She has unmatched organizational strength, ground game, and fundraising ability to defeat the candidate of the Koch brothers.

In other words, they are endorsing who they believe is the “safe” choice and – according to common wisdom – most likely to be able win the White House next year. Significantly, both Clinton and Sanders earned “A” marks for their congressional legislative records – but then, Sanders is a (oh, horrors!) Socialist.  It appears that the NEA leadership is settling on what they think they can get, not who is likely to do a better job.

Apparently, the NEA leadership is oblivious to what has been going on, not only in the US, but around the world. The people have had enough with the status quo. Sanders has already demonstrated that he not only can win the nomination, but the general election as well. Furthermore, his support for issues that educators are most concerned with is clear: collective bargaining, tuition-free college, and opposition to charter schools.

Clinton, while expressing support for higher teacher pay and smaller class sizes, has said, “I actually do believe in charter schools.”  And, despite the increasingly vocal outrage over student load debt slavery, she won’t go as far as to advocate for free college.  Furthermore, though Clinton started out as a Progressive, she has – for the sake of political survival – compromised too much in moving toward the center.

Sanders’ positions may seem radical, but they are needed after a generation of corporatist policies that have destroyed the middle class and taken American public education from the best system in the world down to Number 14, right behind Russia. Clinton talks a good game – but whether or not she would actually deliver once she was sitting in the Oval Office is far from certain.

What has angered NEA members, however, is that the decision to endorse Clinton was made unilaterally by the leadership. In a letter to NEA members, a group of teachers from four states wrote:

More than 30,000 NEA members have shown support for Sen. Bernie Sanders to be our next president through his campaign website or various social media sites…an early endorsement for Clinton would be based only on advocacy by national and state leaders without membership input.

They are calling upon the NEA rank-and-file to stand up against the endorsement, which won’t be made official until next week.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.