The NEA’s Circus
Despite fewer delegates than previous years—just about 9,000, down from 10,000—the National Education Association’s annual convention is still the largest delegated decision-making body in the world.
At times a P.T. Barnum-like spectacle conducted under the thumb of staff, the assembly representing the nation’s largest union, with 3.1 million members, is also an impressive demonstration of a democratic decision-making body.
Two major controversies at the gathering in Chicago last month received national visibility. First was the early endorsement of President Obama’s re-election bid, advocated by the national leadership despite some resistance from several state affiliates, including the California Teachers Association.
Most of the debate occurred within the state caucuses, which was very contentious in some states, such as Tennessee and Oklahoma. As Steve Neat, an Oakland delegate, said on the convention floor, “I fail to see what leverage we have with an administration which can only be classified as unfriendly to teacher rights and disdainful of teachers’ opinions.”
In addition, the NEA leaders called in Vice President Joe Biden to speak, insulting members who know he is the administration's chief negotiator around slashing federal social spending.
While at previous assemblies, delegates tended to blame Education Secretary Arne Duncan as the problem, this year members called for his dismissal, as a message to the Obama administration that its whole approach to school “reform” will undermine teachers and harm education. Matthew Kogan from Los Angeles said, “For two years, the NEA leadership has been meeting with Obama and we are moving backwards.”
The final vote of 5,414 to 2,102 for Obama’s early endorsement (with about 1,500 not voting) is not an adequate expression of the level of anger and frustration expressed by many delegates.
Yet the majority seemed convinced by familiar arguments that the endorsement gives the NEA some measure of leverage. Heavy arm-twisting of state leaderships helped others make up their mind.
Endorsing Teacher Evaluations Tied to Test Scores
The second major debate concerned a revised NEA policy on “Teacher Accountability and Evaluation.”
The new policy allows for students’ results on “fair” standardized tests (yet to be developed) to be used as part of a teacher's evaluation. While it includes some strong language on teacher and union input and due process for probationary teachers, teachers were concerned that this measure would serve mainly as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the Obama administration and the education bureaucracy. Union leaders expect that by giving their blessing to such evaluations, they will gain more say over the content of the upcoming No Child Left Behind reauthorization.
Though NEA leaders vowed to resist any ultimate determining role of standardized test scores in teacher evaluation and compensation, recent statements by NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten indicate otherwise. Van Roekel told the Huffington Post in July that “movement through the pay system should be based on things that you can measure.”
There has been a growing recognition that such testing is a way to undermine academic freedom, as teachers are forced to “teach to the test,” all in the name of accessing limited federal funding.
Teachers as Targets
As teachers are targeted by the populist right, neither the NEA nor the AFT has mustered a real counterweight. At the convention, some teachers called for the union to mobilize members against opponents like the Koch brothers, whose billions help create the poisonous political environment.
There was also considerable discussion of the impact of the Citizens United case, which allows for unlimited spending on elections by corporations. Jim Mordecai, one of those active around this issue, said, “It’s time to fight money power with people power.”
Nancy Porter of Iowa, speaking for the Peace & Justice Caucus, advocated for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan: “As long as the government continues to back corporate programs aimed at bank bailouts and wars of occupation, teachers and students will never receive the resources we need and will continue to face major cuts.”
Other discussion on the floor included motions from delegates to encourage parents’ resistance to the forced taking of standardized tests, and to limit the impact of Teach for America, which encourages a revolving door of new teacher after new teacher at most urban schools (whatever the good intentions of individual participants).
Public Education Is the Battlefield
The context for the union’s debates is all too evident. Public education is the major battlefield not only over adequate funding for public services but also over the very ideology of government: How do we value government-run services and the workers and unions who provide them?
Teacher unions are portrayed as rigid and intransigent, attempting to protect members (often the most senior) who are “incompetent.” We are labeled as obstacles to “real reforms” that would help students and parents, many of them facing blatant economic and racial discrimination.
Rarely do we hear about how curriculum has been bastardized to conform to numbing standardized tests or about how charter schools are massively subsidized, taking public money while showing little accountability to the public and fighting teachers’ attempts to unionize.
Instead, the ills of public education are supposed to be solved by instituting divisive merit pay to reward “good teachers,” undermining seniority, and ousting “bad teachers.”
All this, while more and more working-class young people are pushed out of the education system and have their opportunities severely curtailed. At the center of these policies is the Obama administration and its Department of Education, using its “Race to the Top” funding mechanism to further this agenda.
Despite these attacks on the rights and influence of the teacher unions, leaders have responded with a combination of “rope-a-dope” passivity and a lemming-like desire to cooperate in their own execution.
They justify their stance by the desire to have a “seat at the table,” which ignores the fact that both parties push a consensus on the privatization of public services and the destruction of public unions. The difference is that Democrats seek to have unions actually agree to their self-destruction.
The Assembly re-elected the current NEA top officers, Van Roekel and VP Lily Eskelsen, by more than 90 percent, although this was the first contested election for these positions in many years. Oakland middle-school special education teacher Mark Airgood garnered about 9 percent.
The NEA and the AFT both need opposition caucuses. They should center around a program for the rejuvenation of public education, centered on smaller class size; expansion of programs for career development, culture and the arts; ethnic studies; greater access to higher education; extension of preschool, after-school, and adult education programs; better compensation and support for teachers; and more recruitment of teachers of color.
There is some hope of such a current’s gaining strength in the unions: A joint group of NEA and AFT teacher reformers gathered in Chicago immediately following the convention.
Bill Balderston is a retired member of the Oakland Education Association and is NEA Peace & Justice Caucus chairperson for issues.