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Published in Print: July 28, 2004, as Union Delegates Give New Leader Go-Ahead to Attack Federal Law

Union Delegates Give New Leader Go-Ahead to Attack Federal Law

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As the new president of the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers, Edward J. McElroy promises to advance the "same important causes" championed by his two immediate predecessors.

But under that new leadership, in what amounts to a shift in stance, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union also will challenge provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

The 3,000 delegates at this year’s convention almost unanimously chose Mr. McElroy this month to fill the position left open by Sandra Feldman, who announced earlier this year that she would not seek re-election because of her ongoing battle with breast cancer. She had succeeded the late Albert Shanker in 1997.

Voices from the AFT's convention:

  • Excerpts from Sen. Christopher J. Dodd's speech: Windows Media format; mp3 format (1:17).
  • Excerpts from Sandra Feldman's farewell speech: WMA; mp3 (6:09).
  • Frank McLaughlin, president, Lawrence, Mass., Teachers Union: WMA; mp3 (1:09).
  • Excerpts from Sen. John Kerry's speech: WMA; mp3 (8:02).
  • Christian Nze, special education teacher, Crispus Attucks Academy, Chicago: WMA; mp3 (1:35).
  • Vera Weekes, assistant director, Caribbean Research Center, Medgar Evers College, New York: WMA; mp3 (0:48).

Ms. Feldman threw her support behind Mr. McElroy, who as secretary-treasurer has been second in command since 1992.

"Al and Sandy devoted their great intellect and energy to the AFT, and we have an obligation to continue their work," he said in his speech to union delegates July 17. "And we will. We are all part of the same team."

Goals Challenged

But Mr. McElroy, 63, also spoke about additional challenges ahead for the union, including taking a more critical view of the No Child Left Behind Act. He called the law’s goals "arbitrary and unattainable."

"We are going to work to correct the defects in this law," he said. "We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, but we definitely want to get rid of the dirty bath water."

AFT members showed that they agreed with him by approving a resolution, sponsored by the union’s executive council, that calls upon either the U.S. Department of Education or Congress to "alter the unreasonable rules and regulations and implement the improved rules consistently."

Playing on the name of the law, the "Moving Every Child Forward" resolution calls the act’s "adequate yearly progress" provisions "neither research-based nor scientifically reliable and valid." It declares that the goals of the law have been undermined by "two years of inept and opportunistic implementation by President Bush’s Department of Education."

While the AFT had no formal position on the legislation when it passed with broad, bipartisan support in 2002, union leaders had expressed optimism about the law’s potential to improve schools. In contrast, the larger National Education Association has been fighting the law from its beginnings.

But now the AFT is focused on changes it contends would help the law live up to its potential. "This resolution represents a strong new … policy for the AFT telling what should be done" to fix the law, said Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio affiliate.

Education Department officials, however, said the AFT’s resolution missed the point.

"Let’s face it: The point of the law is the child, not the system," said Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the department. "We’re only two years into fixing systemic public education problems that have been 40-plus years in the making.

"In the past, we just threw money at the problem. Now, we’re demanding results for the taxpayers’ hard-earned billions," she said. "The law’s flexible, and the guidance and regulations we’ve issued over the past year prove it."

Not surprisingly, union delegates overwhelmingly threw their support to Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who has vowed to fully fund the federal law that was one of President Bush’s major legislative victories.

"People who talk about values, morals, and personal responsibility ought to start by keeping their own promises to America," the Massachusetts senator, who voted for the measure in 2001, told the delegates when he addressed them July 16. "It’s time to make these reforms work."

‘Stop This Exodus’

In addition to working for additional funding and revisions to the federal law, Mr. McElroy pledged to make teacher retention a focus of his two-year term. Stagnant salaries are one reason educators are leaving the profession, he said, referring to the results of the union’s annual teacher-salary survey released during the July 14-17 convention.

Average salaries for teachers across the country have increased 3.3 percent, to $45,771, according to the state-by-state survey. Beginning salaries have also inched up 3.2 percent—from $28,661 during the 2001-02 school year to $29,564 in 2002-03.

But any extra money that teachers see in their paychecks is being swallowed up by rising out-of-pocket costs for health benefits, the survey shows. Over that same time, the amount teachers paid for health-insurance coverage increased 13 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The results of the AFT’s salary survey show that teachers in California earned the highest average pay, $55,693. Michigan, Connecticut, New Jersey, the District of Columbia, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Pennsylvania rounded out the top 10.

Teachers in South Dakota earned the lowest average pay, $32,414, with Oklahoma, Mississippi, and North Dakota also in that range.

But other factors are contributing to teachers’ departures, Mr. McElory said, including "unrealistic expectations" placed on them and "inadequate supports."

"We have got to stop this exodus from public education," he said. "After all, the conditions that are good for teachers, that keep them in the classroom, are good for their students as well."

Mr. McElroy has been on the AFT executive council since 1974. In 2001, he was also elected to the executive council of the AFL-CIO, the umbrella group for organized labor, with which the AFT is affiliated. A former high school English and social studies teacher in Warwick, R.I., Mr. McElroy was president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers.

Part of the Team

Delegates at the convention said they were confident of Mr. McElroy’s ability to lead the union.

"He knows leaders [around the country] on a close-up, personal basis, and he’s been part of the team that has created a vision over a 30-year period," said Herbert Magidson, a vice president of the AFT who has held union posts in New York City and state.

And Shirley Verdugo Perez, a first-time delegate from the Chicago Teachers Union, said Ms. Feldman "was a great step-in for Shanker. I’m sure Ed McElroy will be a great step-in for her."

But they also said that Ms. Feldman would be missed.

"She has a global view," Mr. Magidson said. "She sees us as connected not only to organizations of teachers and other professionals, but she sees connections between worker rights and freedom. She saw the value of looking at the needs of workers on a global scale."

In a tribute to Ms. Feldman, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., told AFT members during the convention that he has introduced the Kindergarten-Plus Act of 2004. The bill, which calls for $1.5 billion to help states pay for the program, would give disadvantaged children early entrance to kindergarten. It is modeled after a proposal Ms. Feldman announced at the 2002 AFT convention.

Currently being used in the Las Cruces, N.M., school district, Kindergarten-Plus seeks to narrow the achievement gap by adding instructional days in the summer for eligible children before the school year begins and after it ends.

"Children and their developing minds are our more important resource for the future, and it is critical that we provide all children with a solid educational foundation to help them bloom and grow," Mr. Dodd told the delegates. "Sandy Feldman’s commitment to this cause has been remarkable, and I am proud to have worked on this legislation with such a distinguished advocate for education."

Improving early-childhood education for children from poor families has been a top priority of Ms. Feldman’s presidency.

"From coast to coast," she told AFT members in her farewell speech, "AFT is fighting not just for equitable school financing, but for funding for what we know works, especially for poor children—smaller classes, quality preschool, better-prepared teachers, extended time."

Accountability Measures

In other business, the delegates readily approved changes to the union’s constitution and bylaws designed to head off financial misdeeds such as the ones that last year rocked affiliates in Miami-Dade County, Fla., and the District of Columbia. In both instances, top local leaders were found to have stolen or otherwise mishandled millions of dollars, threatening their organizations’ solvency.

The changes strengthen requirements for affiliate financial reviews, streamline the process by which the parent union can take over a local when the local’s assets or vital records appear to need protection, and tighten requirements for being an AFT affiliate in good standing.

For instance, a local union would not be allowed to slip more than two months behind in paying its members’ national dues and must have a current audit on file with the AFT. Neither United Teachers of Dade nor the Washington Teachers Union would have met those standards before the breakdowns in those locals.

The new accountability measures add to the ones instituted last year by the national union’s executive council.

But the earlier changes, unlike the ones adopted at the convention, did not require amending the union’s constitution, which can be done only at a national convention.

"The goal is to make it so that union leaders are fully accountable to their members and operate with the utmost degree of transparency," said AFT spokes-man Alex Wohl.

Delegates also chose other leaders during the convention.

The third member of Ms. Feldman’s leadership team, Nat LaCour, was elected to fill Mr. McElroy’s position as secretary- treasurer. The former president of the AFT’s affiliate in New Orleans, Mr. LaCour has been the executive vice president since 1998.

Antonia Cortese, the first vice president of the New York State United Teachers, was elected executive vice president, the union’s No. 3 position.

Vol. 23, Issue 43, Page 9

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