In The Line Of Fire

NEA President Bob Chase is out to reinvent his union. He wants to put issues of school quality on the bargaining table right next to wages, benefits, and working conditions. Union traditionalists say he’s talking heresy.
By David Hill — November 01, 1997 28 min read

It’s a stifling hot September evening in Palm Springs, California, and the air conditioners are working full-tilt at the Riviera Resort & Racquet Club, where 700 members of United Teachers Los Angeles have gathered for the union’s annual leadership conference. Tonight, the teachers—all chapter chairs, the union faithfuls who represent individual schools throughout the enormous Los Angeles Unified School District—are in a festive mood as they dine on grilled chicken in the resort’s grand ballroom. But the atmosphere turns serious when Robert Chase, tonight’s keynote speaker, takes the stage. Dressed in a navy blue suit, white shirt, and red tie, the president of the National Education Association stands at the lectern, holding it firmly with both hands, and says, “Let’s talk,” as if to say, “Forget the small talk; let’s get right down to business.”

Chase, who began his career as a social studies teacher in Danbury, Connecticut, was elected president of the nation’s largest teachers’ union in July 1996. Since then, he has spent much of his time traveling around the country, preaching the gospel of what he calls the New Unionism. Last February, in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Chase outlined his vision for a “reinvented” NEA. “Our new directions,” he said, “are clear. Putting issues of school quality front and center at the bargaining table. Collaborating actively with management on an agenda of school reform. Involving teachers and other school employees in organizing their schools for excellence.”

He then criticized his own organization, calling it a “traditional, somewhat narrowly focused union.” And he went so far as to admit that there are some bad teachers in our public schools. “And it is our job to improve those teachers,” he said, “or—that failing—to get them out of the classroom.”

The late Albert Shanker, the longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, was famous for such frank talk. Once, in an interview, he said, “There are teachers who can’t write very well themselves. There are teachers who can’t read very well. There are lots of teachers who can’t spell. I get letters from some of them, so I can tell.”

He, too, argued that teachers’ reliance on militant, industrial-style trade unionism needed to be rethought. Indeed, he gave a speech in 1985 in which he urged teachers “to go beyond collective bargaining to teacher professionalism.” Otherwise, he added, “we will fail in our major objectives: to preserve public education in the United States and to improve the status of teachers economically, socially, and politically.”

But the NEA has long been the more cautious of the two unions. For years, the NEA resisted a number of school reforms, such as teacher testing and peer review, touted by Shanker and the AFT. While the AFT developed a reputation for being open-minded and innovative, the NEA’s image was, in Chase’s own words, that of “an obdurate and powerful protector of the status quo.”

Not surprisingly, some NEA traditionalists felt betrayed by Chase’s press club remarks. After the speech, a group of Wisconsin teachers, all local union leaders, wrote an open letter to the president accusing him of, in so many words, sleeping with the enemy. “There is no reason to accommodate the privateers, those who would destroy the essence of bilateral determinism achieved through collective bargaining,” they wrote. “Because you were a social studies teacher before you became president of the NEA, you should understand the results of appeasement in Eastern Europe in the ‘30s and ‘40s.”

Chase is a quiet but eloquent speaker who has been known to bring tears to the eyes of his listeners.

There’s no doubt that Chase has widespread support within his union. After all, he was elected by a majority of NEA delegates at the union’s 1996 representative assembly. But his critics still dog him, and tonight, in the California desert, they’re ready to take a bite.

Earlier, as the teachers took their seats at the dinner tables, a group of dissident union members passed out a newsletter titled A Second Opinion: The Alternative Voice of UTLA, which contained a stinging attack of Chase’s proposals. Written by Joel Jordan, a teacher at City of Angels School, a dropout-prevention program, the article criticized the union president for “his naive embrace of co-management and professional responsibility as the primary means to improve the quality of education. . . . Our experience in California shows that the most successful means of improving the schools is precisely through massive, militant pressure on school boards and the district bureaucracy, not reliance on a ‘collaborative, non-adversarial process.’ ”

In other words, the New Unionism is No Unionism.

Chase, who has read the newsletter, is on the defensive right from the start of his speech. “I was elected and took office about a year ago on a platform that included something called New Unionism, in which I promised to bring about a lot of discussion and redirect our association in some big ways, to match—and please note, I said, ‘to match,’ and not ‘to replace'—our traditional advocacy for wages, working conditions, and fringe benefits with a forceful new advocacy for quality schools and quality teaching for children.”

When he mentions one of his favorite New Unionism topics—Columbus, Ohio’s peer-review and peer-assistance program, once officially condemned by the NEA but now embraced as an example of creative collaboration—one teacher responds with a loud boo.

Chase is a quiet but eloquent speaker who has been known to bring tears to the eyes of his listeners. But he seems off tonight. It’s the end of a long week, in which he traveled from Washington to Oak Park, Illinois, then back to Washington for a quick trip to Baltimore, then on to Pinellas County, Florida, before flying to Palm Springs this afternoon. At times, he comes across as a stern father lecturing his unruly children. At other times, he sounds weary, as if he’s tired of having to defend his vision for a new NEA wherever he goes.

When he finishes his 30-minute speech, most of the teachers give him a polite but unenthusiastic response; some, however, give him a standing ovation. His antagonists, meanwhile, line up at microphones to fire questions at him. Soon, the heat is on, but Chase never loses his cool.

One teacher begins his comments by saying, “I belong to the greatest profession in the world: teaching,” to which Chase replies, “Me, too.” But the teacher is unimpressed.

“I want to hear that from you,” he demands, “but I don’t.” He adds: “Why did we go into this business? You act as if this is something new, that we want to improve education.”

Chase doesn’t flinch. “Let me indicate to you, sir, that I am a 25-year veteran of teaching,” he says. “I am on leave from my district right now, so I am still technically employed there. Let me also indicate to you that I couldn’t agree more that the heart of the education system is teaching. All I’m saying to you is that over the years, as an organization—I’m not saying as individuals, but as an organization—issues of quality have not held the same level of intensity as have more traditional union activities. Now we have to make sure that we’re doing both.”

“But do we undermine ourselves by not saying this is where we’ve always been?” the teacher asks.

“I don’t think we undermine ourselves at all,” Chase says.

Another teacher brings up the controversial issue of peer review.

“I think that all of us support the idea of peer assistance,” he says. “But I think we should separate the idea of peer assistance from peer review. I think we cross over the line when, as union members, we become part of the mechanism that fires teachers.” A number of teachers cheer loudly at his comments.

‘People ... elected me to be a leader, not an officeholder.’

Bob Chase, president, National Education Association

Eventually, the teacher gets around to his question: What about due process under such a system?

“I certainly understand the difficulty with this issue for a lot of people, for a lot of different reasons,” Chase offers. “But as I indicated to you in my comments, I, too, would be opposed to peer review if that were the only purpose, if it weren’t essentially a program to help teachers improve. Because that’s what it is. The program in Columbus guarantees due process. Everyone’s legal rights are guaranteed and protected, because, after all, every union has the responsibility of duty and fair representation, something I believe in to the very core of my being. These things do not have to be at odds with one another.”

After a few more tough, sometimes hostile, questions, UTLA Vice President John Perez calls an end to the session, and everyone retires to a nearby banquet room for dessert. It’s almost 10 o’clock, well after midnight for Chase. But the union leader is game. He heads off to the reception, where he continues to discuss his New Unionism ideas with smaller, friendlier groups of teachers.

“There can’t be undiscussibles,” he said earlier in his speech. “We must be willing to debate the tough, tough issues.” And tonight, Chase is more than willing to do so.

Several days later, Chase is back in Washington in his cozy eighth-floor office at the NEA’s massive headquarters, five blocks from the White House. He’s sitting in an armchair in the office’s small “living room” area, which contains a couch, a Persian rug, and a coffee table. The office itself is oddly impersonal, save for a broken statue of Don Quixote that Chase has had for years, photos of his two daughters (he is divorced), and a few photos of the union leader with schoolchildren and politicians, including President Clinton. From his window, Chase has a bird’s-eye view of the Jefferson Hotel, where Clinton adviser Dick Morris was photographed on a balcony with a prostitute. “I never saw anything,” says Chase, smiling, “but I worry about where the photos were taken from.”

The reaction to his speech in Palm Springs, he says, was not unexpected, even though the UTLA—a “merged” local, that is, affiliated with both the NEA and the AFT—is known for its support of innovative, reform-minded programs. “There is a contingent of folks within the UTLA that doesn’t like this direction,” Chase says, “and I think they took the opportunity to voice their concerns. And that’s fine. I didn’t feel uncomfortable. I’m used to discussing it. I’m used to having folks disagree with it. I think that’s healthy.”

But he makes it clear that he isn’t going to be swayed from his course. He was elected to make some changes, he insists, and intends to go forward with them. “People, I believe, elected me to be a leader, not an officeholder,” he says. “If there wasn’t strong and ample evidence that this is the direction that people want to go in, then we’d have to be doing something different.”

Chase was the NEA’s vice president for seven years before he was elected to his current, $178,907-per-year post. And while it’s true that he ran on a platform of change, so did his opponent, NEA Secretary-Treasurer Marilyn Monahan. Indeed, the election was seen largely as a personality contest between two members of the union’s inner circle. Both candidates said their biggest concern was the survival of public education, but they were short on specifics.

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.

He began teaching while a student at Providence College in the early 1960s. “My parents couldn’t afford to help me out financially,” he says, “so I got room and board at a home for delinquent kids. I lived there, worked there, and ate there. It was about a mile from campus. My work was in the recreation department. The kids were tough, but they were terrific. And when I graduated from college, I taught there for a year.” His annual salary: $4,800.

At the school, which no longer exists, Chase had to fend for himself. “The help that was provided to us was just about nonexistent,” he recalls. “And I wasn’t a good teacher that year. I just wasn’t succeeding. I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t really trained to deal with special-needs kids. I remember--it was about February of that year—putting in a requisition for some very basic supplies and going over to the main office of the complex later that day and finding my requisition in the wastebasket. So I decided, ‘I’m outta here.’”

Chase had never been to Connecticut, but he had heard that it was a nice place to live, and he liked the idea of being relatively close to Manhattan. “So I applied to several districts in Connecticut,” he says, “and Danbury, which is about 65 miles north of New York City, was the first one to respond, so I took a job there. I knew nothing about it. I had never been there until I went to interview for the job.”

Except for a two-year stint in the Army, Chase would remain in Danbury for the next 25 years, teaching middle school social studies. For the first two years, he didn’t join the local union, an NEA affiliate. “No one asked me to,” he says. “And I didn’t know anything about it.” After his Army tenure, one of his colleagues-the local union president—asked him if he would join and head up the grievance committee. “She said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll just have to come to some meetings. We’ve never had any grievances,’” Chase recalls. “But that year, all hell broke loose, and all of a sudden I was immersed in union work.”

It was, in fact, a time of great change for the teachers’ unions. Albert Shanker, then president of the United Federation of Teachers, the AFT’s New York City local, had ushered in a new era of collective bargaining when he led his members on a series of strikes, beginning in 1960. The NEA, which had been founded in 1857 as the National Teachers’ Association, was primarily a professional association, with no ties to the labor movement. Its members initially were skeptical of Shanker’s militancy. But the UFT leader was getting results, and by the late 1960s, the NEA had reinvented itself as a militant labor union. Wages and benefits were the primary focus at the bargaining table.

This was the atmosphere in which Bob Chase suddenly found himself working. Eventually, he would serve as negotiations chair, vice president, and then president of the Danbury Education Association. “We never went out on strike,” he says, “but we came close a few times. I certainly walked a lot of picket lines at other school districts in Connecticut.”

In 1979, Chase was elected vice president of the Connecticut Education Association, and in 1980, he became president. He represented Connecticut on the NEA board of directors from 1982 to 1985, when he was elected to the union’s nine-member executive committee. From 1989 to 1996, he served three terms as NEA vice president.

“The union has a way of capturing part of you,” he says. “It really does. It is an organization that has a soul, that has strong beliefs that can make a difference in teachers’ lives, and, I believe, in kids’ lives. So it’s a very important vehicle for making things better. And it just never let go of me.”

It has been years since Chase had a regular teaching job, but he still calls himself a teacher. “See, this isn’t my career,” he say . “I’m a teacher first. This is a terrific opportunity, one that I never thought I’d have. And my term is three years. And if I get reelected, I can do it for three more years. And then I’m finished. So it’s not a career. And when you have that attitude, it’s kind of freeing. Because when you’re in a political job, if you’re always concerned about the next election, then that can be inhibiting, even if you don’t think it is.”

Of course, there’s only so much an NEA president can do to reinvent his union. In many ways, it is an organization run from the bottom up, with delegates holding enormous influence over the union’s official policies. “We have a board of directors with 165 members,” Chase says. “We have a very strong state-affiliate structure. We have an annual meeting with 9,300 delegates who actually stand up and vote and make decisions and argue and debate and discuss. That does not enable a single person to go off on his or her own too much. So you have to keep that in mind. You have to lead, but you can’t demagogue.” Chase knows he has to walk a fine line between change and tradition. He intends to keep pushing his New Unionism agenda, but he makes it clear that he’s willing to use Old Union tactics wherever necessary, even if it means going on strike.

In fact, after his press club speech, an NEA local in Pennsylvania went on strike. “And I went up and walked the picket line,” Chase says. “And there were a lot of people who were critical of that, not inside the organization but outside. They said, ‘There he goes. He’s talking about collaboration and cooperation and doing things in a non-adversarial relationship this week, and two weeks later he’s out there walking a picket line.’ But the fact is, in that district they wanted 34 give-backs, and they wanted to freeze the people on the top of the salary schedule for four years. And it just so happens that in that district over half the teachers are at the top of the salary scale. That’s not justice. That’s not collaboration and cooperation. I mean, it takes both sides to cooperate. You can’t cooperate with yourself.”

Even Columbus, Ohio, home of the groundbreaking peer-review program, found itself in the middle of a good old-fashioned labor-management dispute at the beginning of the school year. After months of failing to reach a contract agreement with district officials, the 4,700-member Columbus Education Association voted to implement “work to the rule” guidelines. It was the closest the union has come to a strike since 1974, when teachers staged a five-day walkout. This time, how-ever, the dispute was over issues related to school improvement, not wages and benefits.

“There will always be problems out there,” Chase says. “And that’s just the nature of people. Even where there are wonderful, terrific things going on, that doesn’t mean there won’t be labor disputes, and that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be strong and take the necessary actions that we have to.”

On one issue—school vouchers--Chase remains “unalterably opposed.” “I think they’re a scam,” he says. Charter schools, however, are another matter. Although the NEA fought them for years, the union is now involved in creating four such schools of its own.

One, the CIVA Charter School-CIVA stands for Character, Integrity, Vision, Arts-opened in Colorado Springs in September. When Jan Noble of the Colorado Springs Education Association started planning the school, she didn’t want anyone at the NEA’s Washington headquarters to know. “I thought we might get in trouble,” she says, only half-joking. Now, Chase often cites Noble and her innovative school in his speeches. “Bob Chase has afforded me the backbone to do what we’re doing here,” she says. “If he weren’t president, I’d be out there on my own. He’s made things a hell of a lot easier for us.”

“If done right,” Cha e says, “charter schools have promise. But if used as a vehicle to do some nefarious things"--in other words, if they are used as a stepping stone to vouchers—"then they’re problematic.”

Critics say the union’s limited embrace of charter schools doesn’t go far enough. “For my money, the NEA has it backward,” notes Jeanne Allen, president of the pro-voucher Center for Education Reform, based in Washington, D.C. “Instead of opening charter schools it can call its own, why doesn’t it launch a campaign to assist states in adopting or revising charter laws that will allow local citizens to open schools they can call their own? Or at least call off the dogs that are unleashed every time a strong charter bill appears in a state legislature.”

One of the thorniest issues Chase faces is the proposed merger between the NEA and the AFT, an idea that has been kicking around for years. Chase and his counterpart at the AFT, Sandra Feldman, both say they want a merger, but when it might actually occur is anybody’s guess. “Both sides truly want it to happen,” Chase says. “Whether or not we’ll be able to accomplish this or not, I don’t know. There are some very big organizational differences to work out, not necessarily positions, but structural things. We’re trying to bring together two very, very different structures, and that’s hard. If we were just talking about positions, we wouldn’t have very many problems.”

Negotiations between the two unions are ongoing, and Chase says he hope to report on their progress at next summer’s representative assembly. “I don’t think it will be a full merger,” he says, “but we’ll see what it could be.”

Longtime NEA critic Charlene Haar, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Education Policy Institute, believes the prospect of a merger is actually the driving force behind Chase’s New Unionism agenda. The way she sees it, the AFT wants to bring the NEA in line with its own policies as a precondition for a merger. For example, he says, “the NEA had a policy against peer review, but the AFT has long supported the idea. So the NEA had to get rid of that. It was absolutely a requirement before a merger can take place.”

Haar may be right, but the NEA was moving in the direction of the AFT long before Chase took office. Albert Shanker, not Bob Chase, is the true spiritual father of New Unionism. “If you look at what we’re saying in the NEA and what the AFT is saying,” Chase admits, “there’s an enormous amount of overlap. There’s a real congruence between the positions of the two organizations, much to Al’s credit.” But Chase says he doesn’t have time for those who see ulterior motives behind everything the NEA does. “You know, every time we do something that is on target and right,” he says, “our critics say we’re just doing it for lip service. ‘This New Unionism stuff is just a publicity stunt. It’s just to get the public off its back.’ We can’t worry about that. We just have to go out and do what’s right, and do things that will make sure that public schools are a success.

“Our critics will be there. They’ll say what they’re going to say, and they’ll always be willing to make something out of things that aren’t there. But there are many people who have looked at us and said, ‘Yes, they are doing things differently. They are willing to change.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as In The Line Of Fire