In pitch to teachers unions, Clinton distances herself from Obama

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Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton continued to portray herself as the candidate that teachers unions can trust, further distancing herself from the education policy agenda of the Obama administration.

"Thank you," Clinton told the crowd of 7,000 members of the National Education Association gathered in Washington for the union's annual representative assembly. "That's something you don't hear often enough, isn't it."

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She repeated herself: "Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you for caring for all of our children no matter what they look like or where they come from and who they are."

The flattery is exactly what Clinton has been doing since she was first backed last year by the NEA, the country's largest teachers' union, and the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest – largely in an effort to heal the strained relationship that's persisted between the Obama administration and the teachers' unions.

RELATED: See Clinton throughout her career

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41 powerful photos of Hillary Clinton's storied career (BI)
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41 powerful photos of Hillary Clinton's storied career (BI)

Hillary Clinton, First Lady of the United States, throws a thumbs-up during a presidential election victory celebration in 1992. Her husband might be doing the same for her, 24 years later.

(Photo by Win McNamee / Reuters)

Here she is talking to kids at the Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago, October 21, 1993.

(Photo by Sue Ogrocki / Reuters)

As First Lady, she did a lot of traveling, like to Bosnia in 1996 to meet US soldiers.

(Photo by Win McNamee / Reuters)

In 1997 she visited Goree Island, Senegal, with her daughter Chelsea. Here they are peering out from the Door of No Return, a former slave trading center, as a soldier stands guard.

(Photo by Win McNamee / Reuters)

Nelson Mandela showed Clinton and Chelsea the cell in which he was held for 27 years at the Robben's Island prison off the coast of Cape Town, March 20, 1997.

(Photo by Win McNamee / Reuters)

Here she is with Bill in the Oval Office, chatting with a bunch of kids awaiting adoption.

(Photo via Reuters)

Sporting similar power suits and haircuts, Hillary met with Diana, Princess of Wales, at the White House in 1997.

(Photo via Reuters)

No one can claim that she doesn't get her hands dirty. Here's Clinton building a home as a volunteer for Habitat for Humanity in Pikeville, Kentucky, in 1997.

(Photo via Reuters)

She's always been an advocate for affordable health care as well as women's rights. In 1998, Clinton gave a speech at Beijing Medical University about improving health care in China, particularly folic acid deficiencies in pregnant mothers.

(Photo by Natalie Behring / Reuters)

Like any presidential nominee, she's good with babies. She found this one during a visit to a children's home in the Dominican Republic in 1998.

(Photo via Reuters)

Hillary kneels before the grave of US Private Celia Goldberg, who was killed in Tunisia during World War II, at the North Africa American Cemetery, outside Tunis, in 1999.

(Photo via Reuters)

In 2000, she announced her candidacy for New York's Senate seat.

(Photo via Reuters)

Later that year, Clinton held an event at the White House on preventing potential harm to children from defective products.

(Photo via Reuters)

She won that New York Senate seat on November 7, 2000. Definitely not a "low energy" candidate, based on this picture.

(Photo via Reuters)

Days after 9/11, she took a tour of the World Trade Center disaster site.

(Photo via Reuters)

Here Clinton is giving kids from Manhattan's Colombia Grammar and Prep school a tour of her office on Capitol Hill in 2003.

(Photo by Reuters)

She wrote a book titled "Living History."

(Photo by Chip East / Reuters)

In 2003, all Clinton could do was smirk on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" as Leno shows her a tabloid newspaper article about her hooking up with an alien.

(Photo via Reuters)

A power woman power lunches with US troops in Bagram Airbase, north of Kabul, in 2003.

(Photo via Reuters)

Here she's listening to Defense Secretary nominee Robert Gates testify before the US Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in 2006.

(Photo by Jim Young / Reuters)

Hillary and Bill pay their respects to the late former President Gerald Ford in 2007.

(Photo by Jim Young / Reuters)

This is her first presidential campaign's website in 2007. It's pretty low-tech.

(Image via Reuters)

Back in 2007, she was running against Obama for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

(Photo by Lisa Hornak / Reuters)

Their body language says more than a thousand words.

(Photo by Steve Marcus / Reuters)

She spent most of 2008 on the campaign trail.

(Photo by Chris Keane / Reuters)

She's nothing if not ecstatic.

(Photo by Bradley Bower / Reuters)

It was a close race, but she had to endorse presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama at the National Building Museum in Washington, June 7, 2008.

(Photo by Jason Reed / Reuters)

A gracious loser, she waved to delegates at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, August 26, 2008.

(Photo by Eric Thayer / Reuters)

Despite losing the nomination, her and Obama found that they had a lot in common. He later made her Secretary of State.

(Photo by Jim Young / Reuters)

Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama tour the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo in 2009.

(Photo by Larry Downing / Reuters)

A North Korean soldier looks in through the window as Hillary tours the Demilitarized Zone in Panmunjom, South Korea, in 2010.

(Photo by Cherie Cullen/Defense Department photo via Reuters)

This is the badass pic that launched a thousand memes. Hillary looks cool as a cucumber checking her phone on a military C-17 plane to Libya in 2011.

(Photo by Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

Here she is in the Situation Room with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, along with members of the national security team, in 2011. They just received news on the mission against Osama bin Laden.

(Photo by White House/Pete Souza via Reuters)

They say the second time's a charm: here is Clinton delivering her "official launch speech" at a campaign kick off rally on Roosevelt Island in New York City, June 13, 2015.

(Photo by Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

Peek-a-boo: Hillary sizes up her audience at a campaign launch party at Carter Hill Orchard in Concord, New Hampshire, on June 15, 2015.

(Photo by Brian Snyder / Reuters)

Hillary takes the stage to speak during the Scott County Democratic Party's Red, White and Blue Dinner at the Mississippi Valley Fairgrounds in Davenport, Iowa, January 23, 2016.

(Photo by Scott Morgan / Reuters)

Bill is thrilled as his wife speaks at a campaign stop in Davenport, Iowa, in January 2016.

(Photo by Brian Snyder / Reuters)

A woman of the people, she hugged Brana Marancic, an employee of Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas, Nevada, in February 2016. They appear to be in a storage closet.

(Photo by Jim Young / Reuters)

It was a fierce race between Clinton and Bernie Sanders

(Photo by Mike Segar / Reuters)

Here she is speaking to supporters at her New York presidential primary night rally in Manhattan, April 19, 2016.

(Photo by Mike Segar / Reuters)

She did it! Hillary is officially the Democratic presidential nominee, and the first woman in the 240-year history of the US to lead a major party's presidential ticket.

(Photo by Carlos Barria / Reuters)

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"I want to say right from the outset that I'm with you," Clinton said, adding that if elected president, teachers will have a partner in the White House and will always have a seat at the table.

"You see," she said, "I have this old-fashioned idea that when we're making decisions about education we actually should listen to our educators."

Democrats and unions have historically enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with Democrats backing pro-union policies, such as protecting bargaining rights, and unions using their coffers and numbers to back Democratic candidates who support their causes.

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That relationship was tested under Obama, whose education officials ushered in a period of significant change to K-12 programs, helping and even pushing states to adopt education policies that unions opposed. Among them, the expansion of charter schools, teacher evaluation and compensation systems based in part on student test scores, and the shuttering of poor-performing schools.

"The Education Department doesn't always get it right," Clinton said.

In her speech, the former secretary of state touched on the entire span of education – from preschool through higher education as well as teacher development and pay – and made a series of pitches aimed a rallying the union's powerful membership base.

Among other things, Clinton promised to make universal preschool a reality and honed in on big teacher union priorities, including a pledge to modernize the teacher workforce and increase pay for educators, especially those who specialize in hard-to-staff positions like computer science or special education.

"Teachers make nearly 15 percent less than other college graduates in America," she said. "No educators should have to take second or third jobs just to get by."

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In addition, Clinton touted a student loan forgiveness plan for teachers that would kick in after 10 years of repayments.

Another topic important to teachers: Testing. And Clinton delivered, rehashing an argument she made last year when talking to members of the American Federation of Teachers that students should take fewer but better tests.

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"Tests should go back to their original purpose – giving useful information to teachers and parents so that you know and parents know how our kids and schools are doing and then we can come together to help them improve," she said. "But when you're forced to teach to a test, our children miss out on the most valuable experiences they can gain in the classroom."

Her speech wasn't all flattery, however, and her remarks waded into sensitive topics like charter schools and the need to move beyond politicized debates over education.

"We need to focus on reaching new heights and not rehashing old arguments," she started. "And when schools get it right, whether they are traditional public schools or charter schools, let's figure out what's working."

Her comments were met with immediate boos from the delegates, many of whom see charter schools as direct competition that siphon resources away from traditional public schools.

But Clinton pushed back on the crowd: "We can do that," she said. "We've got no time for all these educator wars. ... Let's sit at one table. Let's sit and listen to each other."

The real question, of course, is if she's elected, would Clinton be the partner and ally teachers unions are seeking. In introductory remarks, NEA president Lily Eskelsen García made it clear she thinks Clinton would be that person.

"Hillary sees our students as whole human beings, not as tests scores," Eskelsen García said. "She sees us as the caring professional who chose to be educators not because we were going to get rich, but because we believe in public education."

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