NEA Panel Touts Its Union Label

By Ann Bradley & Jeff Archer — August 06, 1997 5 min read

When a committee of the National Education Association set out to recommend ways that the union and its affiliates could help promote higher standards in teaching, its members felt obliged to include a footnote on their credentials.

The statement speaks volume about the internal struggle under way at the NEA as members grapple with the “new unionism” promoted by President Bob Chase.

In order to venture beyond the giant union’s predominant focus on wages, benefits, working conditions, and job security, members of the professional-standards and -practice committee first had to show they knew the ropes of traditional unionism.

Twelve of the 13 committee members have been members of a bargaining team, nine have led a bargaining team, six have been on strike, and two have been “arrested on account of their association activity,” the panel members noted in a report to the Representative Assembly meeting here last month.

Because of the NEA’s “remarkable success” at collective bargaining, they argued, the association and its affiliates are “at a state of readiness to address other pressing concerns.”

These include improving teacher preparation, licensure, certification, and professional development-subjects included in a document that will go before the union’s national board of directors in December.

Lea Schelke, a member of the NEA board who serves as the chairwoman of the committee, said the statement was an attempt to allay the suspicion that often greets members who involve themselves in professional issues.

“That was our attempt to say to people who would be reading it with a fine-toothed comb and looking for handles to pooh-pooh it that we have done our homework and know of what we talk,” she explained.

The NEA’s legislative program also has been amended to reflect its changing priorities.

To show the union’s support for high education standards, the board of directors this spring deleted language opposing federal support of standardized testing.

President Clinton is urging states to administer a national test to 4th and 8th grade students.

And if charter schools are to get federal financial assistance, the union says, they should meet a 13-point set of criteria that includes collective bargaining rights for staff members and fiscal accountability.

The NEA opposes providing federal aid to “private corporations and individuals for the establishment and operation of charter schools for profit,” the legislative program says.

The Representative Assembly also opted during the July 3-6 meeting to drop the organization’s opposition to tax-credit programs that help individuals pay tuition at the postsecondary level.

Proposals for such tax breaks drew strong bipartisan support in this year’s federal budget negotiations.

“It’s a recognition that higher education is voluntary, and that a tuition is charged, whether it’s public or private,” said Mary Elizabeth Teasley, the NEA’S director of government relations.

The organization remains opposed to such tax credits at the K-12 level.

In a historic first that highlights the increasing cooperation between the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, Sandra Feldman, the new AFT president, spoke to delegates here.

Ms. Feldman appeared at the Representative Assembly with Edie Shanker, the widow of AFT President Albert Shanker, who died this past February. They joined in a tribute to Mr. Shanker’s lifelong work for children and education.

Ms. Feldman told her fellow unionists that “excellent education is the only winning strategy.”

In another break with the past, the delegates elected an educational support-staff member to the NEA’S executive committee for the first time in the organization’s history.

Iona Holloway, an instructional assistant from Louisiana, joined Idaho teacher Dan Sakota in edging out Marilyn Cross for the two open positions on the nine-seat committee.

The vote was so close that a recount was called. It showed Ms. Holloway winning over Ms. Cross by fewer than 20 votes out of more than 8,700 cast.

The only incumbent in the race and a teacher from Ohio, Ms. Cross had served one three-year team on the executive committee, which, along with the board of directors, serves as the NEA’s primary governing body when the Representative Assembly is not in session.

In a more decisive victory, Dennis Van Roekel, a math teacher from Phoenix, won the race for secretary-treasurer by a 2-1 margin in a race against Florida educator Kathy Bell.

When sworn in for a three-year term next month, Mr. Van Rockel will take over from Marilyn Monahan, who has held the NEA’s No. 3 position for the past seven years. Last year, Ms. Monahan lost to Mr. Chase in a bid for the NEA’s top elected post.

During the four-day meeting, delegates considered more than 60 new business items, ranging from measures dealing with the study of block scheduling to a proposal to condemn the government of Burma for alleged human-rights violations against children.

In close votes, the delegates approved separate measures aimed at keeping an eye on purported enemies of public education.

One calls on the NEA to distribute to local retirement-fund officers information on corporations whose officials “are negative toward public education.”

The other directs the union to inform its members about corporate and family foundations that underwrite “radical groups,” for “information and possible boycott of their products.”

The second proposal--which specifically mentioned such corporate names as Walton of the Wal-Mart store chain and Coors of the Adolf Coors beer company-passed only after delegates removed the word “right” from after the word “radical.”

The NEA will depend on its local affiliates to provide the information needed to carry out both measures.

The assembly also showed support for giving individual members greater recognition. The body approved a plan to design a new membership certificate “suitable for framing” for all NEA members.

But the assembly opted against having the national organization cover the expense of distributing the certificates to all 2.3 million members--at an estimated cost of $6 million. Instead, it will be up to interested members, along with local and state affiliates, to buy the certificates.

A version of this article appeared in the August 06, 1997 edition of Education Week