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Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Chris Van Hollen speaking in Silver Spring.
Democratic Senate candidate Rep. Chris Van Hollen speaking in Silver Spring. (John Fritze)

Maryland's largest teachers union, one of the most politically active labor groups in the state, will announce its support Thursday for Rep. Chris Van Hollen's bid for Senate.

The Maryland State Education Association, which has some 72,000 members and which distributes the well-known "apple ballot" at polling places on Election Day, pointed to the Montgomery County Democrat's past work on public education to explain its support.

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Congress is expected to take more of a backseat role in education policy for the next several years. That's because Washington just approved a landmark education measure in late 2015, and its implementation is being carried out by states and the U.S. Department of Education.

But MSEA officials and Van Hollen said there are important federal issues ahead, particularly the ongoing fight to identify funding for early education programs such as Head Start. Those programs are viewed by many as important to preparing children for kindergarten.

"All of us have a lot at stake in making sure that we have the very best school systems that we can provide for our kids," said Van Hollen, who has used his perch as the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee to advocate for pre-k spending. "I think there continues to be a really important role in providing more resources for early education."

Van Hollen is running against Republican Del. Kathy Szeliga of Baltimore County for the Senate seat that will be left open next year by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's retirement. A recent poll by Annapolis-based OpinionWorks found Van Hollen significantly ahead in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans by a two-to-one margin.

Because Van Hollen and Szeliga are running in a federal race, the endorsement technically comes from the political arm of the National Education Association. It is the MSEA, the state chapter of the national group, that sends questionnaires to candidates and recommends which candidate the NEA should back.

Szeliga did not submit a questionnaire to the group, a union official said.

The teachers union has endorsed Republicans in the past, such as Carroll County Del. Haven N Shoemaker, Jr. in 2014, but the vast majority of its candidates are Democrats.

"I don't care what party you are as long as you are a supporter of education," said the group's president, Betty Weller, who predicted her members would be active campaigners for Van Hollen. "He's been a huge supporter of public education."

Van Hollen declined to take a position on the most recent state controversy the teachers union is dealing with: Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's decision to delay the start of the school until after Labor Day. The idea is popular with voters, but not the union.

Van Hollen said he is still studying the issue. He then pivoted to criticize Hogan for his decision to withhold funding, including for education, that had been authorized by the General Assembly.

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