Geiger Is Seen as Savvy PlayerIn Education’s Political Arena

By Karen Diegmueller — June 19, 1991 13 min read

Shortly after Chris Whittle, the media entrepreneur, announced his ambitious new plan to develop a nationwide chain of for-profit private schools, NBC’s “Today” show called the National Education Association.

Would Keith Geiger, the teachers'-union president, be interested in debating the concept with Mr. Whittle on the morning news program? NBC asked.

The answer, which came straight from Mr. Geiger himself, was a resounding no. Appearing on the television program or responding to other media requests for interviews would give Mr. Whittle’s idea more visibility than it deserved, the union president concluded.

“I wasn’t interested in keeping the issue going,” Mr. Geiger said in an interview last week.

The sharp political instincts that prompted Mr. Geiger to turn down the network have guided him well during his first two-year term as president of the 2-million-member organization, observers said in recent interviews.

And there appears no doubt that Mr. Geiger will get a chance to continue honing his political skills during the next two years. Next month, members of the union’s Representative Assembly are expected to re-elect Mr. Geiger, who is running unopposed, to another term.

When he was elected in 1989 to follow the six-year term of Mary Hatwood Futrell, generally considered the most popular president in the union’s history, there was considerable uncertainty within the n.e.a. about what kind of leader the six-year union vice president would be.

Today, Mr. Geiger is widely regarded as a savvy spokesman who has continued to position the union as a proponent of school reform.

At the same time, though, he has received mixed reviews for his strategy of shifting some of the spotlight off teachers and onto the glaring deficiencies many children bring with them to school.

From the moment Mr. Geiger took office, he has stressed his background as a tough collective bargainer in Michigan, where he served as president of the Michigan Education Association for seven years.

“Without question, Mary Futrell was a tough act to follow,” said Dennis N. Giordano, executive director of the West Virginia Education Association. “If Keith was guilty of anything in the vice presidency, it was of being an outstanding vice president, which means you do stay one or two steps behind the president. Now he has assumed the mantle.’'

Since President Bush’s “education summit” in September 1989, Mr. Geiger has negotiated the roiled waters of education policy with a reputation for cooperativeness and openness to new ideas that also has earned him credibility beyond his own organization.

“He’s a very interesting paradox,” said Thomas A. Shannon, executive director of the National School Boards Association. “The old-school background of hard-nosed, adversarial labor relations, but, at the same time, he is flexible. This combination ... has made the n.e.a. more of a potent force today than when he came in.”

Mr. Geiger chose to make collective bargaining the focus of his inaugural address, a swift change of direction from the instruction-oriented messages of his predecessor. Since then, he has often boasted about his toughness, noting proudly that he has probably been involved in more strikes than any previous n.e.a. president.

Born and reared in the tiny town of Pigeon, Mich., 50 years ago, Mr. Geiger has intentionally worked at grooming his image since taking office. He now favors dark, chalk-striped business suits and conservative ties and has taken public-speaking lessons to polish his delivery.

When an n.e.a. member teased him about his “boyish charm” at a dinner meeting in Memphis, Mr. Geiger was quick to respond that he could hold his own with anyone.

“I’ve gone on ‘Crossfire’ with [the conservative political commentator] Patrick Buchanan three times now,” Mr. Geiger told the woman. “If you can do that, you can do anything.”

Educators and policymakers who have worked with Mr. Geiger on various national commissions and4boards say that he appears to be quite comfortable in such settings and does not hesitate to make his views known.

“I find him to be very up-front and very assertive about what he believes in,” Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander said. “You can have a conversation with him. He’s willing to let his thinking evolve.”

Mr. Geiger has used his frequent columns, published as paid advertising in Education Week and other national newspapers, to offer the n.e.a.'s support for the concept of setting national education goals and for elements of President Bush’s America 2000 education-improvement program.

Still, he never fails to contend that, unless the nation invests in better health care, social services, and preschool programs, the goals are unlikely to be met.

In a recent column, for example, Mr. Geiger wrote, "[O]ur young people are in school only 9 percent of their first 18 years. And we refuse to be held accountable for the deprivations and missed opportunities for learning in the other 91 percent of students’ lives.”

Observers note that, by stressing the need to better prepare students for schooling, Mr. Geiger has taken a politically attractive position--serving as a forceful advocate for disadvantaged children, while deflecting criticism for low student achievement away from his members.

“There’s certainly a tendency on his part to say that society has to change before the school can be expected to do a better job,” said Chester E. Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University who served in the U.S. Education Department during the Reagan Administration.

“There’s some truth to the Geiger argument that it’s harder to teach a kid who’s hungry,” he added, “but it’s too easy to get off the hook by saying that. It’s just not a responsible attitude. We can do a whole lot better than they do with the kids they’ve got.”

Mr. Geiger acknowledged that he has not made teachers the focus of his columns or his speeches.

“I don’t think the problem in the United States today is education, and I don’t think the problem is ... teachers or school employees,” he said. “I think this country has a deep, deep societal problem.”

One way the union leader has proposed addressing children’s needs is through a program that would bring at-risk elementary students to school two weeks before classes begin for an intensive program to pre8pare them to learn.

Mr. Geiger proposed the initiative at the n.e.a.'s 1990 annual meeting, dubbing it “Operation Jump Start.” The $2.2-billion proposal has yet to find a sponsor in the Congress.

Mr. Geiger also has used his columns to discuss specific reform measures that some observers say they would have expected the n.e.a. to oppose.

More than any other position advocated during Mr. Geiger’s tenure, education experts and policymakers said in interview after interview that they have been impressed by the union leader’s perceived openness to a new system of student assessment that would go beyond standardized paper-and-pencil tests.

“I thought they would be adamantly opposed to every version” of a national test, said Mr. Finn, who has advised Secretary Alexander on the President’s education plan, which calls for such testing. “It’s my opinion that they are not.”

“They haven’t exactly said, ‘Hurrah, we’re for it,”’ he added. “But by now they would have said, ‘No way,’ if they were going to behave in what I thought was a predictable manner.”

Mr. Geiger called his response to such initiatives a “delicate balance.”

“I have worked very hard to not be a constant critic of the present Administration,” he said. “And at the same time, there are a lot of issues on which we disagree, and I’ve had to say [so.]”

“I want the n.e.a. to be part of framing those issues and not always being reactive,” he continued.

Although Mr. Geiger has been praised for his statesmanlike approach to such issues, some of his constituents say they are eager to have their leader clarify some of his positions at the union’s Representative Assembly meeting this summer.

Betty Kraemer, president of the New Jersey Education Association, said Mr. Geiger has been “out front” on educational issues.

“He seeks input, which is something that I don’t think was done in the past,” she said. “I would have to say that he is a ‘members’ president.”’

Nonetheless, Ms. Kraemer said she has been troubled by Mr. Geiger’s support of America 2000, which includes merit pay and public-private school choice--two policies opposed by the n.e.a.

“We need to hear from Keith as to the n.e.a.'s thinking,” she said.

The union leader’s receptivity to the Administration’s proposals distresses other state leaders.

Harvey B. Press, president of the Rhode Island state affiliate, said, for instance, that he does not think Mr. Geiger has been critical enough of “the flim-flam, the rhetoric, and the smoke and mirrors” emanating from the White House.

But Mary L. Christian, the interim president of the Michigan Education Association, called Mr. Geiger “a very fine politician” who has made “a great impact” on education policy at the national level by arguing for greater investment in education.

“Mary [Futrell] was right for her time, an eloquent spokesperson on instructional issues,” Ms. Christian, who is active in Mr. Geiger’s re-election campaign, said. “But Keith is more into the political arena and making his input out there so that our friends will deliver.”

To a great degree, Mr. Geiger’s first two years in office have been defined by issues typically associated with labor unions.

In fact, the new president used the opportunity presented by his inaugural address to call for the extension of collective-bargaining rights in every state.

“We must give new attention and bring new energy to an issue that has become the abused stepchild of the reform era,” he told the delegates. “I am speaking of collective bargaining, which ... has in recent years been too often neglected, too often scorned, too often blamed for halting the pace of educational change.”

Despite the call to action, no state has extended the right to bargain collectively to teachers in the past two years. But union officials say the issue remains a high priority.

Meanwhile, Mr. Geiger has visited striking teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Washington State during the past two years to encourage them in their efforts to pressure lawmakers into increasing education funding.

The union president’s emphasis on collective bargaining initially “frightened a lot of people,” said Debbie Simonds, president of the Georgia Education Association.

“They felt that the Washington n.e.a. and a Michigan teacher were going to come into Georgia and tell Georgians what was best for them,” Ms. Simonds said. “But that’s never, never been Keith’s approach. It’s been more of support.”

Mr. Geiger’s tough rhetoric on bargaining also has raised flags for observers outside the union.

The n.e.a.'s renewed emphasis on collective bargaining, coupled with an increased number of strikes, marks a step away from the emphasis on professional issues that character4ized Ms. Futrell’s leadership, said Jo Seker, director of Concerned Educators Against Forced Unionism.

“I think he has made every effort to indicate to the members and through the media that he cares about education,” she said of Mr. Geiger. “But his actions and leadership show very clearly that his number-one issue is to gain control of educational-policy decisions through bargaining, and, if it takes militant strike action to do it, he’ll do it.”

Within the union, Mr. Geiger has been finessing several delicate issues that could result in radical changes in the nea’s structure and mission.

High-level discussions of reorganizing the union to better serve its varied constituents--students, teachers, professors, and teachers’ assistants--had to be slowed down after it became apparent that rank-and-file members did not have a clear understanding of the need for change.

Mr. Geiger said he personally made the decision to slow the pace of the talks, even though, when they began, he was criticized by some union members for not moving swiftly enough on the reorganization.

State affiliates will now educate their members on the reasons underlying the proposed changes.

“I want to be out front,” Mr. Geiger said, “but I don’t want to be so far out in front that they feel as though they don’t know where they are going.”

In contrast to his precedessor, Mr. Geiger has been receptive to the possibility of merging the n.e.a. with the rival American Federation of Teachers and the American Association of University Professors. During his presidency, at least two states--Wisconsin and Florida--have held serious merger discussions. (See Education Week, May 1, 1991.)

Mr. Geiger also has enjoyed a cordial relationship with Albertinued on Following Page Continued from Preceding Page

Shanker, the a.f.t. president, who calls their relationship “close and cooperative.”

Just last week, for example, in their first joint press conference, the two union presidents and the president of the aaup announced that they would fight together to stem cuts in higher education.

Even though Mr. Geiger is regarded as more of a political operative than an educational thinker, it is during his tenure that the n.e.a. launched the National Center for Innovation, which coordinates the union’s various school-improvement projects. While many of the programs were begun under Ms. Futrell’s leadership, the center this year began a new teacher-education project.

The n.e.a.'s involvement in the debate over the preparation of teachers, although low-key, signals that the union continues to consider professional issues a priority, observers say.

Mr. Geiger, who will become chairman of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education this summer, has been a “very active participant” in the council’s board meetings, according to Arthur E. Wise, president of the organization.

Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of curriculum and teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University, noted that the n.e.a.'s continuing involvement with ncate and its new teacher-education project are critical if teaching is to become a true profession.

“It’s really not sexy,” Ms. Darling-Hammond said of such professional issues, “but it’s been incredibly important.”

David G. Imig, executive director of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, called Mr. Geiger’s dedication to teacher-education issues “remarkable,” given the other demands on his time.

“In the politics of the teacher-edu4cation debate, he clearly wants a presence and has made a commitment,” Mr. Imig said, adding that the union president is well-informed and has “shown an interest in some of the more esoteric concerns having to do with teacher education.”

In March, Mr. Geiger traveled to Atlanta to address aacte’s annual meeting. In his speech, Mr. Geiger made a strong pitch for unity between teachers and teacher educators, who have often felt bashed and buffeted by state policymakers.

“We’ve got to give more than lip service to the ideal of collaboration,” Mr. Geiger told the audience. “If we don’t, we’re going to find ourselves caught in a circle of mutual impairment.”

However, at a press conference after his talk, Mr. Geiger acknowledged that the Oregon Education Association had not lobbied on behalf of the endangered teacher-education programs at the University of Oregon and Oregon State University, which were later cut severely by the state board of education.

“My power as president of n.e.a. goes as far as my power to persuade,” Mr. Geiger explained. “I will not make a phone call to Oregon and say, ‘You need to do this.”’

Associates say that Mr. Geiger’s intense work habits and arduous schedule took a toll on his health during his first year in office.

The union leader suffered from allergies that were aggravated by his extensive travel schedule, which took him away from his Fairfax County, Va., home six nights a week. Mr. Geiger is now away from his wife, who teaches elementary school, about three nights a week.

When he does travel, he speaks to a broader range of organizations, including business groups.

“I like them to hear our side of the story about what education reform is,” Mr. Geiger said. “Five years ago, with many of these groups, the n.e.a. wouldn’t have even been invited, because they were looked upon as always being opposed to everything. They are now inviting us.’'

A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 1991 edition of Education Week as Geiger Is Seen as Savvy PlayerIn Education’s Political Arena