Published Online: March 12, 1997


NEA Center Seeks Positive Role in Push for Better Schools

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The National Education Association is trying to shed its defensive image and galvanize its state and local affiliates to address Americans' concerns about the quality of public schools.

That reconception was the primary theme of a two-day conference that concluded here last week and was sponsored by the union's Center for the Advancement of Public Education. The meeting, focused on ways to engage the public, drew 250 elected officials and staff members from NEA affiliates around the country, as well as leaders of the American Federation of Teachers from several Midwestern states.

Founded in 1993 as the Center for the Preservation of Public Education, the center changed its name last year to reflect the union's priorities. While staff members still monitor state and national legislative activity on vouchers, charter schools, parental- rights legislation, and private contracting of education services, they also try to help members form broad-based coalitions in support of public education.

"We have to turn defensive battles into proactive organizing," said Sheila Simmons, the director of the center.

The union's effort to get out in front of the debate over school quality began in earnest in January 1995 when elected officials and staff members began crafting a new focus, said Evelyn Temple, an assistant executive director of the NEA. The union leaders concluded, she said, that the NEA was "strong and powerful in its own right" but also "very insular."

"We were talking to ourselves and not listening to those who disagreed with us," Ms. Temple told the participants here.

The shift in emphasis fits neatly with the reinvention of the union that new President Bob Chase has been espousing. ("Seeking 'Reinvention' of NEA, Chase Calls for Shift in Priorities," Feb. 12, 1997.)

He delivered that message here in a speech in which he urged union leaders to rethink the way they do business.

"It won't do to talk only about what we are against--vouchers, privatization, weak charter laws. We have to say what we are for," Mr. Chase said.

"I ask you to think anew. Summon all the political courage you have. Many of you are political leaders, but you must put yourself aside and work for the improvement of schools."

The union president's remarks drew a standing ovation almost before he finished speaking.

'Failed Marriage'

The conference provided an opportunity for union leaders to hear from what they termed "critical friends"--parents, a member of a state school board, a prominent business leader, and representatives of national foundations and organizations with experience in helping citizens solve common problems.

Robert Wehling, a senior vice president of the Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble Co., told the audience that he believes the NEA is making a mistake in focusing so much energy on fighting voucher and charter school legislation. Even if such measures pass, he said, the majority of children will be educated in public schools.

"That's a giant distraction," Mr. Wehling advised. "It takes you off what you should be focused on."

But Lily Eskelsen, a Utah elementary teacher and a member of the NEA's executive committee, disagreed. "We have to stand up for what we believe is right," she argued.

Kelly Butler, the executive director of Parents for Public Schools, a Jackson, Miss., organization with chapters in 22 states, compared the relationship between some parents and schools to a failed marriage.

In such cases, she said, teachers are like a custodial parent who wants a child-support check from a former spouse but not much input on how to raise the child.

"We've got to restore the balance," Ms. Butler said. "Educators need to relax a little and re-evaluate the important role that parents have to play."

Representatives from Public Agenda, a public-opinion research organization in New York City; the Kettering Foundation, based in Dayton, Ohio; and the Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center in Nashville, Tenn., also cautioned union members not to demonize their critics.

As evidence that the NEA is starting to try to listen and reach out, union officials noted that they will be visiting Focus on the Family, a leading conservative Christian organization based in Colorado Springs, Colo., during an upcoming NEA training program.

Ambassadors for Schools

Union affiliates from Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Washington state shared information on programs they have created to polish public education's image and better connect with parents and the public.

The Colorado Education Association, for instance, has put together a one-hour "Ambassador Program" that helps educators realize the influential role they play--through their dress, attitudes, and even classroom knicknacks--in shaping others' perceptions of the schools.

Plaques that say, "My favorite months are June, July, and August," turn people off, the presenters said.

And so do warning signs at school doors ordering visitors to report to the office, rather than welcoming them.

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