Seeking ‘Reinvention’ of NEA, Chase Calls for Shift in Priorities

By Jeanne Ponessa — February 12, 1997 6 min read
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In a speech that was 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 called last week for a “reinvention” of the union.

Bob Chase, speaking at the National Press Club here, laid out a broad plan for a shift in NEA priorities. He called on the 2.2 million-member teachers’ union to transfer its focus from the old style of labor-management antagonism to a new emphasis on professionalism and collaboration.

“These industrial-style adversarial tactics simply are not suited to the next stage of school reform,” Mr. Chase said to a crowd filled with reporters, union leaders, education-policy advocates, and some union foes. He vowed to create a “new union” that would build partnerships with administrators, work to enhance school quality, and either help incompetent teachers improve or remove them from the classroom.

Noteworthy in Mr. Chase’s speech were statements of regret over some past union actions. He said that the NEA had at times been “too quick to dismiss” criticisms of those who care deeply about education and had at times used its power to block changes and protect members’ interests rather than those of students and their schools.

Mr. Chase, who was elected to the union’s top post last year after serving as its vice president, also added an unusual 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 had resisted.

“That was the biggest mistake of my career,” he said. “And today, with all due respect, I say to the traditionalists in NEA’s ranks, to those who argue that we should stick to our knitting, leaving education reform to others: You are mistaken.”

In the organization’s last big transformation, in the 1960s, the NEA changed from a quiet professional association to a hard-nosed labor union that pushed tirelessly for better wages and working conditions for its members.

As Mr. Chase envisions it, this next transformation of the NEA would result in a new, professional union that focuses on cooperative efforts to ensure high-quality teachers and schools.

Mr. Chase had been dropping hints that he had big changes in store for the NEA in several recent speeches and statements.

In an interview after the speech, Mr. Chase said the National Press Club forum gave the NEA an 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.”

Changing Course?

The address was met warmly by many of Mr. Chase’s fellow union members. “As you can imagine, I couldn’t be more pleased,” said John Grossman, the president of the 5,000-member Columbus Education Association in Ohio. “We’ve felt very strongly for a long time that the union should be moving in this direction.”

Mr. Grossman, whose peer-assistance and -review program was highlighted recently in a column written by Mr. Chase that appears as a paid advertisement in national newspapers, said his group’s internal surveys have shown strong support from teachers for an emphasis on professional programs. Mr. Chase “has touched the pulse” of teachers’ concerns, Mr. Grossman said.

Angelo Dorta, the president of the 8,500-member Vermont-NEA, said the “courageous” speech portended new support for alternative bargaining strategies, such as trust agreements or joint labor-management committees.

The discussion of teachers’ professional concerns is limited under some states’ bargaining laws, he said. “Reading into Bob’s speech, part of it is a call to bring those professional issues to the table,” he said.

Barbara Smith, the president of the 27,000-member Oklahoma Education Association, said that she applauded Mr. Chase’s goals and that she did not think teachers would oppose his pledge to purge inept teachers from the nation’s education system. “No real quality teacher really wants an inadequate teacher in their schools,” Ms. Smith said, “but we need programs in place to help improve their teaching, and where it can’t be improved, help in leaving the profession.”

Teaching Academy

In a move to foster the professionalism of teaching, Mr. Chase announced that the NEA had entered into a partnership with John B. Stetson University in DeLand, Fla., to help establish the Celebration Teaching Academy. The academy, which will be located in the Walt Disney Co.'s new town of Celebration, Fla., will offer teachers an opportunity to sharpen their skills and witness best practices.

Mr. Chase also said the NEA had placed a new focus on urban schools with a new emergency commission on urban children that will address that subject.

The commission, made up of leaders from the NEA, the American Federation of Teachers, and other education groups, will study issues affecting urban youths such as funding inequities, class size, and social services.

Not everything Mr. Chase said last week, however, reflected a new perspective: He reiterated his strong opposition to school vouchers.

He pledged to support the education agenda that President Clinton--who has enjoyed strong union backing--set forth in his State of the Union Address. (“Clinton Gives Top Billing to Education Plan,” in This Week’s News.)

‘Leading Edge’

After the speech, other education-policy leaders mused over the implications of Mr. Chase’s message. “I think this does represent a major shift in the posture of the NEA,” said Arthur E. Wise, the president of the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, who has worked closely with the NEA.

The union has carried out policies related to quality improvement in the past, but those efforts have been relatively low-profile, Mr. Wise said.

“I think he represents the leading edge of his union,” Mr. Wise added. “I think he’s going to have to bring along some members of his union who might not be ready.”

Gordon M. Ambach, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, observed that it was an important step for the union to state explicitly that it is committed to removing nonperforming teachers from the classroom.

But Paul F. Steidler, a senior fellow with the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, an Arlington, Va.-based conservative think tank, said that the speech contained “a very high amount of self-flagellation” that did not necessarily signal a turnaround for the future.

Mr. Steidler also said that the speech marked a very modest and, perhaps, merely rhetorical change in the union’s stance. He added that because Mr. Chase had served in the NEA leadership for years before becoming president, he was not a likely candidate to make radical changes.

“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,” Mr. 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.”

Mr. Chase was elected to succeed Keith B. Geiger at the union’s annual convention in Washington last July.

He had served as the vice president since 1989 and had been a member of the executive committee and board of directors since 1981. Mr. Chase began his career teaching social studies in Danbury, Conn., in 1965. (“Head to Head,” June 19, 1996.)


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