Election Year Hints at Shifts for Unions
Leaders’ expected departure could come at crucial time.
The National Education Association is poised for a change in leadership this year as its president of six years, Reg Weaver, bumps up against term limits. Now, speculation is widespread that Edward J.McElroy, his counterpart at the American Federation of Teachers, might not seek re-election in July.
The possible exit of Mr. McElroy—and the certain one of Mr. Weaver—comes at a crucial time for the two national teachers’ unions, which together represent more than 4.5 million members: This is a presidential-election year, and Congress is working to renew the No Child Left Behind Act.
Some observers are hoping that new leaders would be inclined to forge a closer relationship between the unions, which have drifted apart over the past several years after a close call with a merger in 1998. A merger would create, they believe, a stronger voice in opposition to proposals in the federal law that both unions have separately condemned.
Others say this period is critical because the unions have shed nearly any vestige of a reputation for pushing to improve schools in ways that would require some lapse in teacher prerogatives. If the unions want a role in school improvement, these observers say, the new leaders should act soon.
There are few doubts over who would take the reins at the two unions when the time comes. For years now, Randi Weingarten, the president of the United Federation of Teachers, the New York City affiliate, has been considered heir-apparent to Mr. McElroy. And besides, the only two other presidents of the UFT, Albert Shanker and Sandra Feldman, have both gone on to lead the AFT. The only other union leader who had been widely cited as a possible competitor for the job, Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, died last year.
After years of denials,Ms.Weingarten herself has recently indicated that she will consider a run for the president’s job if and when Mr. McElroy leaves.
“I won’t rule anything out,” she said in an interview last month. “But my hope is Ed runs again. He is a terrific guy and a great AFT president.”
Meanwhile, Mr.Weaver’s successor is expected to be Dennis Van Roekel, the vice president of the 3.2-million NEA since 2002 and before that its secretary-treasurer. For two decades the top leaders of the NEA have always previously held either the vice president’s or the secretary-treasurer’s post or both.
Challengers to Mr. Van Roekel have until mid-April to file. The AFT president takes office in July; the NEA president in September.
Through an NEA spokeswoman, Mr. Van Roekel declined to be interviewed for this story.Mr. McElroy was also unavailable for an interview, but AFT spokesman Chuck Porcari said there has been no word from the president of the 1.4-million-member federation on any plans to leave this year.
Point Man for Merger
While Mr. Van Roekel has been on the national stage for years, the executive positions he has held and the breadth of the NEA’s constituency almost guarantee that any new ideas he might promote as president will remain obscure for now. The first obligation of an NEA vice president or secretarytreasurer is loyalty to the president, and some of Mr.Van Roekel’s activities and pronouncements over the years have reflected that.
Mr. Van Roekel was then-President Bob Chase’s point man in pushing a merger with the AFT a decade ago, and during that era, he also spoke in favor of greater union involvement in ensuring teacher quality. In more recent years, under President Weaver, he has warned that public education is under attack and emphasized that schools are the key to American success in a global economy. In both cases, he was sounding themes also heard from the president.
Mr. Van Roekel has spent considerable time since he became secretary-treasurer in 1996 rallying the NEA’s huge and diverse membership, and in that role, he has earned high marks. Union leaders praise him especially for his ability to listen and to encourage.
“He’s a listener … and he’ll collaborate,” said John T. Riley, a member of the NEA’s 172-member board of directors from Maryland.
Julia Washington, a vice president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, a local affiliated with both national unions, said Mr. Van Roekel has been open to the concerns local NEA officials from urban districts have put before their national leaders.
The NEA has often seemed biased toward the views of teachers in suburban and rural districts, where most of its membership is, in contrast to the big-city orientation of the AFT.
Hopes for Reform
But popularity doesn’t give many hints about policy.
Mr. Van Roekel is “something of a Rorschach [test],” said Andrew J. Rotherham, a former White House education aide under President Clinton and a co-director of the think tank Education Sector, in Washington.
“Inside and outside the union, the more reform-minded say that’s what he’s about,” Mr. Rotherham said. “But others inside and out say he’ll pursue fights against NCLB and other related reforms even more effectively than Weaver has.”
Even the top leader at the NEA faces an enormous challenge in shifting the union from its existing course, should that leader be inclined to try, he and others say. “No matter how well-intentioned and free-thinking Dennis Van Roekel is,” said Mr. Rotherham, “he is about to be dealt a very difficult hand.”
If the next NEA president wants to reposition the union on the side of those who believe not enough has been said—let alone done—about systemic problems in American schools, completion of the revision of the NCLB law could help, offered Julia Koppich, an education consultant who has been a close observer of the unions and once worked for the AFT.
“One could speculate that if a Democrat is elected [U.S.] president, if NCLB … is substantially modified, that would take some of the pressure off the NEA” to keep in its defensive posture, she said.
Mark Simon, who heads the Tom Mooney Institute for Teacher and Union Leadership, located in Washington, said he has high hopes for both Ms.Weingarten of the AFT and for Mr. Van Roekel. If they are going to foster union participation in important conversations about how schools and the teaching profession can be made better, he said, they at least need to offer help and encouragement to local leaders going that route.
“Local [union] leaders have been left a little bit defenseless at a time when they need to step up to the plate and be problemsolvers,” he said.
The NEA, for example, has a policy denouncing any use of student test scores in a teacher-pay plan, although a national committee of the union is examining it.
Mr. Van Roekel is, Mr. Simon said, “up to the task to be deeply engaged in very thorny issues.”
A look at the NEA vice president’s earlier career as a union leader does not make the tea-leaf reading much easier.
By several accounts, a teacher well regarded by students and colleagues in his 10 years or so teaching math at Paradise Valley High School in Phoenix, Mr. Van Roekel had just taken office as the president of the Paradise Valley Education Association when a superintendent tried to enforce changes unpopular with teachers. Mr. Van Roekel led the charge to turn over the school board, and the superintendent was ousted, said Santhe Niedner, a colleague and fellow union activist from the Paradise Valley district.
“That was the beginning of the association being able to elect a board that was proactive and positive- thinking,” she said.
As the president of the Arizona Education Association, Mr. Van Roekel played a major role in negotiating a state law promoting career ladders for teachers, said John H. Wright, the current president of the affiliate. He said he expected Mr.Van Roekel to acknowledge what needs be improved in schools, while “moving the conversation away from the costs and the problems.”
Both Mr. Wright and Ms. Niedner are members of the Committee to Elect Dennis Van Roekel.
‘Face of the Union’
The change in union leadership is looming as Congress works on the renewal of the NCLB law, which imposed test-based accountability and other provisions that are unpopular with many teachers. Both unions, which did not make a great impact on the bipartisan law as it was enacted six years ago, are hoping that a retooling of NCLB will include proposals they are backing, such as changes to the formula by which schools’ progress is measured and to the requirements on “highly qualified” teachers.
Mr. McElroy, along with AFT Executive Vice President Antonia Cortese, has provided testimony at reauthorization hearings and has been meeting behind the scenes with members of Congress on changes to the law. Mr.Weaver, too, has been a vocal participant in testifying on reauthorization.
Still, some observers say they expect that Ms. Weingarten, if she moved into the AFT’s top job, would make a stronger impact in Washington than other national union leaders have in recent years.
“If she becomes the president of the AFT. … you’ll see her more as the face of the teachers’ unions,” said Mike Antonucci, a teachers’ union watchdog who runs an online newsletter from Elk Grove, Calif.
Observers point to Ms. Weingarten’s successful record as a union leader in the nation’s largest school district, where she has worked effectively with the city administration on several measures to improve schools. For instance, she has both spearheaded the opening of union-led charter schools and forged a pay-for-performance contract with the district.
For that record, some compare her with the late Mr. Shanker.
“That’s emblematic of the approach that Shanker took,” said Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Century Foundation and the author of a 2007 biography of the legendary AFT president.
Ms.Weingarten, he said, shows an openness to negotiate on changes, rather than turn them down outright. “That’s important for a union leader to be successful and very much in the Shanker tradition,”Mr. Kahlenberg said.
Even union detractors have held her up as an exemplary leader. Former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, in his anti-union treatise War Against Hope, praised Ms. Weingarten for working on charter schools: “She understands the need for, and is committed to, school improvement for kids,” he wrote.
“She is progressive; she is solid on issues,” said Adam Urbanski, who heads the Rochester Teachers Association as well as the Teacher Union Reform Network of NEA and AFT Locals, a group of progressive union leaders.
Some wonder, however, if Ms. Weingarten could be as effective a progressive leader as the president of the national organization as she has been in New York—at least with the larger locals.
AFT affiliates have for a long time blazed their own trails. “She can advocate what she wants, can get into the newspapers, but in terms of getting the presidents of Chicago, [Miami-Dade County], or New York teachers' unions to do what she wants, she has no power at all,” Mr. Antonucci said of a prospective Weingarten presidency.
One of the possibilities that observers raise under potential new leadership is a closer relationship between the two unions. After almost merging under Mr. Shanker and Mr. Chase, the unions have rarely been seen working together in recent years, even when they are often fighting the same cause.
Mr. Urbanski said he expects both Ms.Weingarten and Mr. Van Roekel to forge closer ties if they do head their respective unions. The New York affiliates of the NEA and the AFT unified last year.
He added that the choice is not limited to the extremes of either a merger or a complete lack of communication.
“We don’t need evidence that we have enough in common to work together,” he said. “How you work out the details is the issue. What’s even more important … is a pooling of resources of knowledge and skills around specific challenges.
“For instance, we should not be fighting NCLB separately, but together,” he said.
Vol. 27, Issue 22, Pages 1, 12Published in Print: February 6, 2008, as Election Year Hints at Shifts for Unions