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N.E.A. 'Strategic' Planners See Structural Change as Possibility

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Washington--Leaders of the National Education Association and its state affiliates met behind closed doors here late last month to ponder a number of issues critical to the union's future policies and structure, and to work on a "strategic plan" that will guide the organization over the course of the next decade.

It was the first time the nea had called together such a large and wide-ranging group specifically to "brainstorm" on the future of the organization.

Roughly 320 leaders took part in the deliberations. They included the nea's executive committee and board of directors, the presidents, vice presidents, secretary-treasurers, and executive directors of its state affiliates, and other union "stakeholders."

"We thought it was important to involve a wide range of the folks at the various levels of the organization in this planning," said Robert F. Chase, a member of the nea's nine-member executive committee.

The meeting was a key component of a formal process the executive committee initiated just over a year ago to develop the plan, which officials say will ultimately include a brief mission statement and a number of "strategic objectives" for carrying out the union's vision.

The mission statement will be the first one that the nea has drafted since 1857, the year the association was chartered, according to Gary Watts, the union's assistant executive director for governance and policy development.

A final draft of the plan, which Mary Hatwood Futrell, the union's president, has called "a blueprint for the future of the nea," is expected to be presented to the union's board of directors for approval in February.

"This is a time for deciding where we are going," Mr. Watts said last week. "We are rethinking our direction, policies, and structure."

A Changing Constituency

Although the recent meetings were closed, the contents of three discussion papers prepared by the nea's executive committee and staff to help focus the planning effort reveal many of the issues that union leaders are addressing.

The papers explore a variety of topics and pose many questions, but do not make policy recommendations.

They focus on the political, economic, and societal changes that are reshaping public education; the impact of education reform on the union, the teaching profession, and the public schools; and the changing demographics within the nea

The latter paper presents some particularly startling projections on just how radically the composition of the nea's membership may change, if the organization continues to be successful in its push to organize education-support personnel and higher-education faculty members.

Since the nea became a union in the 1970's, its membership has been dominated by teachers and other instructional staff members. They currently make up roughly 85 percent of the union's 1.9 million members.

If, however, the nea were able to organize 65 percent of the unorganized support personnel and higher-education faculty--the same percentage of K-12 public-school teachers it says it represents--the organization's total membership would jump to more than 4 million.

Of those members, only 35 percent would be teachers. Thirty-one percent would be education-support personnel, 16 percent higher-education faculty members, 12 percent higher-education support personnel, and 6 percent retired teachers, according to the projections presented in the paper.

Structural Questions Raised

Such projections raise a number of tough questions for union officials.

The paper asks, for instance, whether the union should attempt to organize at least 65 percent of the employees in the various membership categories, or seek "to represent only a portion of the nontraditional constituencies in order to maintain the current balance of power."

"Does the organization need to maintain a K-12 dominance in order to influence public education?" the paper asks. "Will the membership realignment diminish the program activities committed to 'professional' concerns?"

Currently, the nea is one independent union, rather than a confed8eration of individual unions organized along specific constituency lines. The afl-cio, for example, is a confederation of individual unions that represent a wide range of employees, from truck drivers to teachers.

New Educators, Less 'Affinity'?

But the nea paper asks whether the union's current structure is the ''most effective" way to represent its increasingly diverse constituency, or whether its governance should instead be held accountable "to affiliate groups divided along membership categories?"

The paper questions whether such a "confederation model" will become "necessary to maintain membership cohesion."

But it notes that if a confederation model were adopted, a number of other sticky questions might arise.

For instance, would the nea "allow" a constituency group to take independent actions to meet its particular needs, even if those actions ran contrary to general union positions? Such a situation could arise if the nea represented higher-education faculty members in private institutions, as it currently does in some states.

Would the union support that group's advocacy for an increase in federal funds to private higher education? Currently, the union opposes the idea of public money going to private schools.

The paper also notes that there are "substantial numbers" of educael15ltion-related jobs being created in the private sector, particularly in the areas of child care and postsecondary proprietary training, and asks whether the union should seek to represent employees in these areas.

Would representing such private-sector employees "substantially detract" from the union's mission and create an "unreconcilable conflict of interest among constituencies," the paper asks.

The document also raises a number of concerns about the new generation of teachers that will replace those retiring. The nea expects to lose roughly half of its active teacher members to retirement by the year 2000.

"Survey data indicate that new teachers have less affinity for collective bargaining than current members but support compensation systems that reward individuals and join organizations based on organizational ability," the paper states.

"How will increased numbers of such employees with these attitudes recruited into nea membership affect traditional [union] policy and programs?" it asks. "What programmatic changes will be necessary for local associations to enhance their ability to represent the new teacher?"

Reform Issues Debated

Mr. Watts said the questions regarding the union's changing demographics were "hotly debated" at last month's meeting.

He added, however, that the issues surrounding education reform and the implications of demographic changes within the nation in general--the subjects of the other two pa4pers--"were by far more discussed than the internal structural issues."

Such issues as school restructuring, teacher empowerment, education funding, and employee compensation received considerable attention, the union official said.

Those at the meeting, he added, sought to clarify what the purpose and scope of education should be, and what the union should do "to help our members become more empowered."

Participants were divided into 18 separate discussion groups. Each group, Mr. Watts said, identified the critical issues the union must address, and formulated a mission statement and a set of strategic objectives.

"The executive committee will take these, condense them down, and prepare a draft for people to start reacting to," he said.

The final objectives, Mr. Watts added, may provide "specific directions" for change or may "simply declare" issues, concerns, and problems the union must work on.

'A Lot on the Table'

Several presidents of nea state affiliates contacted last week declined to comment on the nature or substance of last month's deliberations, but expressed general enthusiasm for the process.

"A lot was put on the table," said Dennis Giordano, president of the New Jersey Education Association. "Some of what was discussed is very exciting in terms of its potential."

But, he added, "this is the infancy of a discussion on these issues. Nothing has been concluded."

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