Education Secretary Arne Duncan (left) and NEA President Dennis Van Roekel serve lunch to students in Alexandria, Va., in 2009. The NEA’s rank-and-file demanded that Duncan resign at last weekend’s annual convention at Chicago’s McCormick Place. | File
Updated: January 23, 2012 2:58AM
Public school parents and hard-working taxpayers should be well aware of what schoolteachers, assisting personnel and administrators heard this past weekend from their colleagues and their national union leadership.
At the annual convention at Chicago’s McCormick Place, leaders of the National Education Association told members that the best way to help students learn, to update school resources and to advance the nation’s education system involves four factors: Ousting several key Republican governors, stoking class warfare, re-electing Barack Obama in 2012 and ignoring divisions with the NEA membership.
More than 8,000 delegates from throughout America attended the convention to hear from NEA president Dennis Van Roekel, Vice President Joe Biden, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, Wisconsin’s Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller and others.
This past year, the NEA lost nearly 38,000 of its 3.2 million members, creating a $14 million budget shortfall. As a result, the NEA is being forced to lay off 25 staff members and impose a $10 per person annual membership increase. Van Roekel blamed the efforts of GOP governors and the newly elected Republican majority in the U.S. House for the challenges the NEA is facing.
“The election of 2010 shifted the balance of power, nationally and in many states. Since then, we have seen attacks on public education and public employees in state after state,” Van Roekel told the delegates. “Many of these attacks have targeted our very existence by attempting to strip our collective bargaining rights and our ability to collect dues. They’re trying to silence our voices and end democracy in the workplace.”
Elections mean things, he said, urging an early NEA endorsement for Obama’s re-election in 2012.
“President Obama is the candidate for president who shares our vision for this country,” Van Roekel said. “He has never wavered from talking about the importance of education — from pre-K to college, fighting for Pell grants, fighting for the Dream Act, fighting for struggling students. That doesn’t mean we agree with all his education ideas, and I know we’ll fight like hell to fix the things that are wrong.”
Those words, “doesn’t mean we agree with all his education ideas” touched on one of the convention’s hottest topics.
The headlines read, “NEA endorses Obama for second term,” but that’s not the whole story. The rank-and-file urged a delay in an early endorsement and to demand that Education Secretary Arne Duncan resign.
The membership directed Van Roekel to communicate “aggressively, forcefully and immediately” that they are “appalled” with Duncan for 13 different reasons. Among those are Duncan weighing in on local hiring decisions of school and school district personnel, supporting some local decisions that involved firing all school staff indiscriminately and his support of using high-stakes, standardized test scores for both student achievement and teacher evaluation.
Individuals expressed their frustration with Obama’s silence while they were marching against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s efforts to limit state employees’ collective bargaining rights. They also were unhappy that Obama himself did not come to Chicago to ask for their endorsement.
Despite such gripes, the NEA’s Representative Assembly did endorse Obama with 72 percent of the vote. But as one observer noted, that 72 percent was the weakest NEA endorsement for a Democratic candidate in decades. Obama’s 79.8 percent support in 2008 was lower than Al Gore’s in 2000 and Sen. John Kerry’s 86.5 percent in 2004.
Other issues before the NEA’s governing body clearly showed a growing number of right-leaning teachers is working its way up through the union’s ranks. Those members are maneuvering within the resolution system to moderate the union’s traditionally leftist positions.
For example, Standing Rule 3 would have prohibited the distribution of information contrary to the NEA Resolutions on Curriculum Content. The discussion on this resolution turned quickly to whether or not creation science curriculum should be included in the exhibits.
This year, the Caucus of Creation Science Teachers offered free books and materials to convention attendees. Creation Science is not approved by the NEA, and 25 delegates wanted the exhibit removed. The governing body disagreed, and the display remained throughout the convention.
Numerous verbal shots from the podium at conservatives — ranging from governors Scott Walker of Wisconsin, John Kasich of Ohio and Chris Christie of New Jersey to the wealthy Koch brothers who finance right-wing nonprofit causes — betrayed the NEA leadership’s insistence that the union is nonpartisan.
But the votes, discussions and resolutions showed that a growing number of conservative teachers are successfully making their views known loud and clear. Things need to change within the NEA. It’s well aware that more taxpayers are frustrated and focused on the billions being spent annually on public education, with a lackluster return on their investment. In reaction, charter schools, private schools and home schools are growing in number.
We got the NEA leadership’s message and their four points. We just hope they listen to their rank-and-file and the taxpayers: The handwriting’s on the chalkboard. Change your ways.