In a speech as provocative as its promotional tag, “A New Approach to Teacher Unionism: It’s Not Your Mother’s NEA,” the president of the National Education Association last month called for a “reinvention” of the giant union.
Bob Chase, speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., urged his 2.2 million-member union to shift its focus from old-style labor-management antagonism to professionalism and collaboration. “These industrial-style adversarial tactics simply are not suited to the next stage of school reform,” Chase said to the gathered reporters, union leaders, and education advocates. He vowed to create a “new union” that would build partnerships with administrators, work to enhance school quality, and help incompetent teachers improve or leave the classroom.
Perhaps most noteworthy were Chase’s statements of regret over past union actions. He said the NEA had at times been “too quick to dismiss” criticisms of those who care deeply about education and had used its power to protect members’ interests rather than those of students and schools.
Chase, who was elected to the union’s top post last year, also added a note of self-criticism: In 1983, he said, when then-President Mary Hatwood Futrell tried to mobilize the union to lead the education-reform movement, he resisted. “That was the biggest mistake of my career,” he said. “And today, with all due respect, I say to the traditionalists in the NEA’s ranks, to those who argue that we should stick to our knitting, leaving education reform to others: You are mistaken.”
The NEA’s last big shift in emphasis was in the 1960s, when it transformed itself from a quiet professional association into a hard-nosed labor union that pushed tirelessly for better wages and working conditions for its members.
In an interview after the speech, Chase said the forum gave him the opportunity “to reach people who we might not have the opportunity to reach and to explode some of the myths about who we are and what we are about.”
The address was warmly received by many of Chase’s fellow union members. “We’ve felt very strongly for a long time that the union should be moving in this direction,” said John Grossman, president of the 5,000-member Columbus Education Association in Ohio. Grossman noted that his local affiliate’s internal surveys have shown that teachers support a new emphasis on professional programs. Chase “has touched the pulse” of teachers’ concerns, he said.
Barbara Smith, president of the 27,000-member Oklahoma Education Association, said she did not think teachers would oppose Chase’s pledge to purge the nation’s schools of inept teachers. Top-notch teachers don’t want ineffective colleagues in their schools, Smith said. “We need programs in place to help improve their teaching and, where it can’t be improved, help them leave the profession.”
Not everything Chase said reflected a new perspective. He reiterated his strong opposition to school vouchers. And he pledged to support the education agenda that President Clinton—who has enjoyed strong NEA backing—set forth in his State of the Union Address.
After the speech, other education leaders mused over the implications of Chase’s message. “I think this does represent a major shift in the posture of the NEA,” said Arthur Wise, president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education. Although the union has carried out policies related to quality improvement in the past, Wise noted, those efforts have been relatively low profile. “I think [Chase] represents the leading edge of his union,” he added. “I think he’s going to have to bring along some members who might not be ready.”
But Paul Steidler, a senior fellow with the conservative Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, an Arlington, Virginia-based think tank, said the speech contained “a very high amount of self-
flagellation” that did not necessarily signal a turnaround. It marked a very modest and perhaps merely rhetorical change in the union’s stance, he said.
Chase’s tenure in union leadership posts, Steidler added, made him an odd proponent for radical change. “He’s been in the internal echelons of the NEA for so long—it’s not like he was a schoolteacher from Minnesota who went on a crusade,” Steidler said. “For someone to be a visionary and enact a lot of changes, it’s more likely if they’ve had an outside perspective.”
Chase, who began his career in 1965 as a social studies teacher in Danbury, Connecticut, was elected to succeed Keith Geiger at the union’s annual convention in July. He had served as the NEA’s vice president since 1989 and had been a member of its executive committee and board of directors since 1981.
A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as NEA Head Sets New Course