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In The Line Of Fire

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Conservatives, who have long considered the NEA an obstacle to reform, like some of Chase's rhetoric, but wonder if it is all just a publicity stunt.

Ironically, it was Keith Geiger, the outgoing NEA president, who pointed the way for a new NEA in his final speech to the 9,000 delegates gathered in Washington, D.C., in July 1996. Geiger urged the union members to use collective bargaining as a "sledgehammer" to knock down the "Berlin Wall . . . blocking change and reform," and he touted the peer-review program in Columbus as a model of labor-management cooperation. "Now, I grant you," Geiger said, "this is a brave new world for the NEA. And, by all means, let us be brave in embracing it."

The next day, Chase was elected president of the 2.3 million-member organization, taking roughly 60 percent of the delegate votes. In his first address as union leader, Chase pledged "to move this great association in bold, creative, and, if necessary, uncomfortable directions," and he promised to advocate a "New Unionism, with contracts that empower and enable our members in new ways."

But it wasn't until seven months later, in his press club speech, that Chase outlined his vision for a dramatically different NEA. He billed his prepared remarks as "A New Approach to Teacher Unionism: It's Not Your Mother's NEA." The speech, he admits, was a deliberate attempt to "grab attention."

"There were some things I said in that speech that were intended to create debate," he says. "There were some people here"—inside the NEA bureaucracy—"who advised me not to use the term 'bad teachers.' And I said, 'Sorry, but I'm going to do it.' Now, the number of bad teachers is small. But if the president of the NEA said, 'There are some folks in our classrooms who aren't doing a particularly good job'—yawn. Or, 'There are some teachers who need to get some help'—yawn. So I used those words very intentionally, and not just for an external audience, but for an internal audience, as well."

He adds: "I don't mean to sound Machiavellian, because when I say those things, I mean them. They aren't just designed to provoke."

If Chase meant to stir the pot, he certainly did so. Conservatives, who have long considered the NEA an obstacle to reform, liked some of the union leader's rhetoric, but they wondered if it was all just a publicity stunt. The union traditionalists—like the state leaders in Wisconsin and the dissidents in Los Angeles—saw Chase's comments as counterproductive, a threat to union solidarity. Others wondered why it had taken the NEA so long to get with the program.

So what prompted the press club speech? For one thing, the Republicans had made the NEA an issue during the 1996 presidential election. Candidate Bob Dole attacked the union every chance he got, portraying it as a liberal special-interest group concerned only with power, not pupils. In his speech accepting the Republican presidential nomination—which came just a few weeks after Chase took office—Dole lambasted the "teachers' unions," which has become a code phrase for the NEA. (Conservatives, many of whom admired Albert Shanker for his common-sense approach to school reform, tend not to bad-mouth the AFT.) "If education were a war," Dole said, "you'd be losing it; if it were a patient, it would be dying. When I am president, I will disregard your political power for the sake of the children, the schools, and the nation."

Chase, who was at the Republican national convention in Chicago, says he was "taken aback" by Dole's remarks, even though he'd heard the candidate say much the same thing during the campaign. "He made a very big mistake," Chase says. "Politically, it didn't resonate with the majority of the American public." What Dole's comments did do was put the NEA in the spotlight, allowing the newly elected union president to get his message out. "That might not have been as easy to do," he says, "if we had not been in the position of having to respond to these attacks."

'Public education made the difference in my life.'

Bob Chase

Then there was the so-called Kamber Report. In the fall of 1996, the NEA hired the Kamber Group, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm with ties to the labor movement and the Democratic Party, to analyze the union's public image and communications apparatus. The result was a 43-page report titled An Institution at Risk. (The allusion to A Nation at Risk, the landmark 1983 report on the state of public education in America, was quite intentional.) Submitted to the NEA last January, it was promptly leaked to the press.

The report paints a picture of a union in crisis. The NEA, it asserts, has come under "increasing and unrelenting attack" by "anti-government ideologues who believe the private sector does everything better, by anti-labor zealots who jump on every opportunity to bash unions, by CEOs who seek profits from educating our children, and by religious extremists who equate education with Satan."

In the face of these assaults, the report goes on to say, the NEA initially chose not to respond at all. And when it did, the response was "often negative, and lacking a succinct message."

"What NEA faces now is a crisis," the report states. "But one cannot handle a crisis in a business-as-usual mode. And despite its best intentions, the NEA continues to operate in a business-as-usual mode."

The report urges the union to go on the offensive with a two-year campaign, to be titled, "Better teachers, better students, better public schools." The initiative "will be the means of shifting NEA's approach from that of an industrial union to one that embraces attributes of craft unionism, in which ensuring quality workers is just as important as raising wages and benefits at the bargaining table." The campaign "should be launched in a speech by President Chase in which he acknowledges the crisis, says some things for their shock value to open up the audience's minds (e.g., there are bad teachers, and our job is to make them good or show the way to another career), and then details the Association's substantive programs to improve public schools—those already in existence and those that will be expanded or launched in the months ahead."

NEA critics seized on the report. To them, it simply confirmed what they had long suspected: that the union's reform efforts are more public relations than substance. But Chase insists that isn't the case. The report, he says, merely "validated the direction we were already going. . . . It makes it clear that if the NEA is going to change, then it can't be just smoke and mirrors. It has to be substantive stuff. It's not just a PR thing. I mean, it's been a great tool. But the platform I ran on as a candidate was based on this stuff, and that was before the Kamber Report."

Still, the NEA seems to have taken many of the report's proposals to heart. For whatever reason, the union chose not to adopt the "better schools, better students, better public schools" campaign. But Chase's New Unionism agenda has served much the same purpose. And the union president apparently followed the report's specific recommendation that he launch the new initiative in a speech designed for its "shock value." Even the phrase "bad teachers" comes right out of the report.

On the other hand, it's likely that the report never would have been commissioned in the first place if Chase had not seen the writing on the wall. "It would have been irresponsible for him not to have done something," says Jan Noble, president of the Colorado Springs Education Association and a Chase supporter.

Chase's leadership was first tested at the NEA's annual meeting, where he overcame long-standing opposition to peer review of teacher peformance.

The report itself acknowledges that "given the changes under way over the last year, this report does not suggest a radical shift—just swifter and greater movement in the same direction. . . . President Chase believes the very notion of public education as we know it is under attack and, taken to its logical conclusion, that means the very nature/existence of the NEA is being challenged. This point of view was shared—indeed, usually volunteered—by most of the NEA leaders and staff whom we interviewed."

Chase's first test as NEA president came last summer, at the union's annual representative assembly in Atlanta. He urged the delegates to adopt a resolution reversing the NEA's longtime opposition to the concept of peer review. After a spirited debate lasting nearly two hours, the resolution passed by voice vote, despite loud opposition from the union's California, New Jersey, and Wisconsin affiliates. The measure spells out specific guidelines that locals are urged to follow if they wish to adopt such a program.

"This is a defining moment," high school teacher Lea Schelke told a reporter from Education Week after the vote. "It shifts the world for our new members. They appreciate all of us old workhorses who got the salaries and protections they don't want to walk away from—but they want more."

W hen Bob Chase says, "Public education made the difference in my life," he isn't just saying it for effect. Born in 1942 in his grandmother's house in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, Chase grew up in a poor household with two brothers and two sisters. His father, a laborer, worked at various blue-collar jobs, while his mother spent most of her life working in a candle factory.

"It was tough," Chase says. "My folks didn't have very much. There were five kids, and my parents struggled. It's a very common story from that period in history. It's nothing unique or different from thousands of other folks. No one in our family had gone to college. Two of my siblings didn't finish high school." In fact, Chase was the only member of his family to graduate from college. "I was just lucky," he says.

But luck was only part of the equation. At Dennis-Yarmouth Regional High School, Chase came under the influence of a teacher by the name of Alan Carlsen. Last summer, at the representative assembly in Atlanta, Chase introduced his former teacher at the end of his keynote address. "He was my English teacher in high school and my track coach for four years," Chase told the assembled delegates. "He helped me believe in myself. A good teacher like Alan Carlsen has the unique ability to be both demanding and encouraging. A good teacher like Alan Carlsen knows how tough it can be to be a kid, how discouraged kids can become, how ashamed of failure, how sensitive to adult opinion they are. A good teacher like Alan Carlsen knows when you're slacking off, and lets you know that he knows. But he keeps encouraging you. He builds you up and never tears you down. He knows when to reach out to a confused and uncertain kid, as Alan Carlsen did to me."

Chase still remembers what he calls "the defining moment" of his life: when Carlsen asked him, "Bobby, have you ever thought about being a teacher?"

"Until that moment," Chase says, "it never had occurred to me that I had the ability to enter a profession as respected as teaching. So Alan Carlsen is the reason I became a teacher. There's no question in my mind."

But it didn't happen right away. After graduating from high school, Chase decided he wanted to become a priest. "I grew up Catholic," he says. "The church was a rock, stability. Parish priests were important people, a stable influence." But during his two years at the seminary, Chase couldn't get Carlsen's question out of his mind, and eventually he concluded that teaching was, in fact, his calling. And he never looked back.

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