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NEA Tackles ESEA

Delegates to the National Education Association's annual meeting took up almost every issue under the sun—from health-insurance coverage to "free trade," from reading instruction to chalk dust—but the one that cast the biggest shadow was the new federal education law, the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001.

In addition to approving a proposal from the top leadership to set up a broad-based advisory committee to take into account the results of three regional strategy meetings and to try to mold implementation of the law, the NEA Representative Assembly generated about a dozen other measures on the subject. The delegates passed six, including ones that directed the 2.7 million-member union to:

  • Document the consequences of the law as it plays out in states and districts;
  • Inform the rank and file about its provisions;
  • Take a message highlighting what the union perceives as the law's "negative aspects," such as high-stakes testing, to the public;
  • Call for new federal legislation to amend the act, adding money and lengthening implementation timelines, for instance; and
  • Support local campaigns to win over local school boards to offer alternatives to the high-stakes tests.

The law, which reauthorized the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, never seemed far from anyone's thoughts during the July 2-5 meeting here. But approaches suggested to deal with it ranged from a careful crafting of objections to sweeping denunciations.

Presenting his proposal to lobby local school boards and city councils to reject high-stakes tests in favor of alternatives, California delegate Fernando Ledezma declared that such action was warranted "when mandated programs are shoved down our throats."

But Mark Simon, a delegate from Maryland, urged caution as the assembly tackled the ESEA, which some NEA members have started calling the "Elimination of Scholastic Environment Act."

"The public supports ESEA," Mr. Simon said. "We must take action with our heads rather than our hearts." In the end, the assembly ran up a potential bill of $3.6 million to take on the new law. That's more than a smidgen of the total $267 million NEA spending plan the delegates approved for this fiscal year, and could require cutting some other items.

Gay-Student Issues Slip Into Lower Profile

Last year's highly emotional debate on new school programs aimed at ensuring "a safe and inclusive" environment for gay and lesbian students got nary a word this year. During the 2001 meeting in Los Angeles, delegates weighed a resolution that called for the new programs while conservative organizations rallied against the proposal nearby. ("NEA Poised to Defer Vote on Aid for Gay Students," July 11, 2001.)

The issue was defused internally when the assembly agreed to table the proposal in favor of forming a task force to study the issue and make recommendations.

That group's work was made available to delegates at this year's meeting, but the recommendations had already won the needed approval from the union's board of directors. ("NEA: Local Schools Must Address Safety of Gays," Feb. 20, 2002.)

Among a number of actions, the task force recommended that:

  • The union's lobbying agenda include support for a federal statute banning employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identification;
  • The NEA expand its efforts to inform students, school employees, and the public about the needs of, and problems facing, homosexual and transgender people, with materials for that purpose being developed locally; and
  • The union do a better job of monitoring its progress in the area of rights for those groups by setting up a new committee on sexual-orientation and gender-identification issues.

Union Elders

In places where they're given a choice, older teachers are more likely than younger ones to belong to unions. But delegates Mary S. Hall of Texas and Viola Hall of Michigan still stand out in the graying crowd. The NEA doesn't keep official statistics on delegates to its annual meeting, but it may be that Viola Hall, at 88, was the oldest delegate and that Mary Hall, at 84, was the oldest first-time delegate. Aside from their sisterhood in the union, the two are unrelated.

In coming to Dallas, Viola Hall was returning to the site of her first Representative Assembly-in 1966. Retired from more than 30 years of elementary teaching in and around Flint, Mich., Viola Hall has served as the president of her local association and attended many annual meetings. She is on the board of the Michigan Education Association, Retired.

The thrill of this annual meeting, she said, was encountering one of her 6th graders in the restroom line. "She recognized me; I didn't recognize her," continued Viola Hall, noting that her former pupil is now a teacher herself in Las Vegas.

Mary Hall was elected to the assembly twice before, and even got as far as Atlanta, the site of the meeting, five years ago. But both times her husband's illness kept her from serving. She was widowed in January. She began teaching high school in New Jersey 55 years ago, moving from a school secretary's position to that of teacher, preparing classes in five different subjects that first year. And she has never stopped, though in recent years, she gave up the classroom to work one-on-one academically with special education students. For more than 35 years, she has been at Memorial Senior High School in the Spring Branch district near Houston.

"I just like it," she said, a little chagrined that mere longevity had brought her media attention. "I like being around people, inventing things, solving problems." As for her union involvement, which goes back decades, it has an important goal, in her opinion. "You've got to keep the politicians out of education," MaryHall declared. "They don't know what they are doing; they're killing us."

Bilingual and Early-Childhood Ed. Measures Approved

Delegates supported at least two measures that shift their giant organization in new directions. One moves the union off its neutral stance in regard to bilingual education, which has been challenged in several states, notably, and successfully, in California. The policy calls on the NEA to sponsor a national seminar on bilingual education "to develop mutual strategies for dealing with the English-only movement."

A second measure, approved on a close vote, directs the NEA president to appoint a committee on early-childhood education to examine "whether, and if so to what extent, NEA should attempt to organize and represent early-childhood employees." Some delegates said the union should stick with organizing teachers and support personnel in public schools rather than stray into new territory.

Record Set for Dollars Raised

The more than 8,500 delegates raised a record amount of money for the NEA Fund for Children and Public Education, the union's political action committee. Selling tote bags and T-shirts to colleagues here, raffling off a car, and auctioning off the garage-door-size posters that decorated the meeting hall, they put $1,193,653 into PAC coffers. According to union observer and critic Mike Antonucci, that's likely to end up being more than half the annual total, all raised here in Dallas from people who were already supporting the union with four or more days of their time.

New President Aims to Shore Up Membership

In his first speech as the union's president-elect, Reg Weaver told delegates that public education was under threat as never before. Making headway in "an environment of unprecedented diversity" requires attention, first of all, to husbanding membership, he said, perhaps hinting at a goal of his presidency. "We must never forget or underestimate the fact that NEA's strength, influence, and future are in our numbers," said the victor in the election against Denise Rockwell.

Mr. Weaver went on to call for a public relations campaign that would give the NEA the stature it needs to "convince the public that despite what they hear, we know what works."

"Public opinion is largely driven by image," the union leader told the delegates. "We need to unify our message and maximize our public relations."

Also critical to the struggle, Mr. Weaver said, is outreach to other groups and to "policymakers who are for us"—both Republicans and Democrats.

The speech, which was brief and general, did not give any time to educational challenges confronting the union and mentioned "quality education" just once.

Maybe the prospect of single-minded pursuit of union clout worried President Bob Chase. In extemporaneous remarks that capped extended thanks to the outgoing president, Mr. Chase urged delegates not to let a "defensive posture drive us backwards."

Four days earlier, at a press conference, he had sounded the same note. Asked what advice he would give to his successor, who was yet to be elected at that point, Mr. Chase said a move away from the "new unionism" that he has championed would be a step in the wrong direction.

"We have to make sure issues of quality remain in the forefront," he said. "I am convinced that's what our members want, especially the members who are new to the profession."

—Bess Keller

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