When Mary Hatwood Futrell stepped down as president of the National Education Association last month, she left behind more than tear-streaked faces. She left an organization poised at a critical juncture.
Futrell has served an unprecedented six years in office, and is widely perceived as the most popular and effective president in the history of the NEA. Under her leadership, the 1.98 million-member union—the nation’s biggest—has enjoyed increased visibility and prominence.
She helped the organization regain a balance between professional and bread-and-butter concerns and has guided it into the midst of the school-reform movement. Under her leadership, the NEA launched a major initiative on behalf of “at-risk” children, participated in the creation of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, and sought to win greater authority for teachers at individual schools.
Although sometimes held back by the union’s sizable bureaucracy and rigid procedures, Futrell has aggressively prodded her members along the path of change. During the last two years, she became a bolder and bolder advocate for overhauling the nation’s schools.
“Our schools are good, but to meet the challenges ahead they must be better. Much better,” Futrell told delegates to the union’s convention this past summer. “That is why we must completely transform American education. Not with incremental reform. Not with casual, cautious reform. It’s too late for tinkering. We need massive, systemwide restructuring.”
Just what Futrell’s departure will mean for the NEA is the subject of widespread speculation. Most of the major policy initiatives adopted during her tenure were approved by the union’s massive governing body, which means they will be reasonably difficult to undo. But some outsiders question how deeply into the rank and file the NEA’s recent reform initiatives have penetrated.
The key question, according to the RAND Corporation’s Linda Darling Hammond, is “how much momentum has been built up” within the union. “Is there enough momentum to keep the organization rolling along into a leadership role in what is going to be an ongoing school-reform movement?” she asks. “Or will a more conservative tendency take over?”
The answer to her question may well lie with the NEA’s new president, Keith Geiger. In one of the most closely contested presidential races in the union’s history, convention delegates elected Geiger over John Wilson, a member of the organization’s executive committee.
Geiger, who was the NEA’s vice president under Futrell, has already warned not to expect a “big aboutface” in the union during his tenure. “We need to continue the work we have begun,” he said in his acceptance speech. “And I know we will.”
But Geiger also indicated that he will lead the union in some “new directions.” In particular, he wants to focus on passing collective-bargaining laws for teachers and other educators in states that don’t have them.
Collective bargaining “has in recent years been too often neglected, too often scorned, too often blamed for halting the pace of educational change,” he asserted. “[It] is not a blockade to progress; it is the pathway to progress.” Geiger encouraged delegates to use their clout, expertise, and political leverage “to ensure the passage of state laws that give full collective-bargaining rights to every education employee.”
But while delegates lent their ears to their new president, they gave their hearts to Futrell. Her keynote address, which was among the most pointed and inspirational of her career, was interrupted more than 60 times by applause, laughter, and standing ovations. And on the last day of the convention, delegates stayed into the night, some standing in line for nearly three hours, to present the leader with personal accolades and gifts.
In bidding farewell to the delegates, Futrell said, “Please remember me as Mary Hatwood Futrell, someone who has chalk dust on the sleeves of her soul.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as Futrell’s Farewell