The Making Of The President

August 01, 1991 7 min read

When Geiger was elected in 1989 to follow Mary Hatwood Futrell, generally considered the most popular president in the union’s history, there was considerable uncertainty within the NEA about what kind of leader the six-year vice president would be. But that incertitude has largely vanished. Today, Geiger is widely regarded as a savvy spokesman who has continued to position the union as a proponent of school reform.

“Without question, Mary Futrell was a tough act to follow,’' says Dennis 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 stay one or two steps behind the president. Now, he has assumed the mantle.’'

Since President Bush’s “education summit’’ in September 1989, Geiger has negotiated the roiled waters of education policy with a reputation for cooperativeness and openness to new ideas that has earned him credibility beyond his own organization. At the same time, he has often called attention to his collective-bargaining background in Michigan, where he taught school and later served seven years as president of the state’s NEA affiliate. He often boasts about his toughness, noting proudly that he has probably been involved in more strikes than any previous NEA president.

“He’s a very interesting paradox,’' says Thomas 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 NEA more of a potent force today than when he came in.’'

Born and reared in the tiny town of Pigeon, Mich., the 50-year-old Geiger has worked hard at grooming his image since taking office. He now favors dark, chalkstriped business suits and conservative ties and has taken publicspeaking lessons to polish his delivery.

Educators and policymakers who have worked with Geiger on various national commissions and boards say that he appears to be quite comfortable in such settings and does not hesitate to make his views known. Even Lamar Alexander, the new secretary of education, has nice things to say about him. “I find him to be very upfront and very assertive about what he believes in,’' Alexander says. “You can have a conversation with him. He’s willing to let his thinking evolve.’'

Geiger has used his frequent paid columns, published in a number of national newspapers, to offer the NEA’s support for the concept of setting national education goals and for elements of President Bush’s education-improvement program, “America 2000.’' But he always points out that unless the nation invests in better health care, social services, and preschool programs, the goals are unlikely to be met. “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 says. “I think this country has a deep societal problem.’'

Observers note that, by stressing the need to better prepare students for schooling, Geiger has taken a politically attractive position--serving as an advocate for disadvantaged children, while deflecting criticism for low student achievement away from his members. “There’s some truth to the Geiger argument that it’s harder to teach a kid who’s hungry,’' says Chester Finn Jr., a professor of education and public policy at Vanderbilt University, “but it’s too easy to get off the hook by saying that. It’s not a responsible attitude. We can do a whole lot better than they do with the kids they’ve got.’'

One way Geiger 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 prepare them to learn. The $2.2 billion proposal has yet to find a sponsor in Congress.

The union leader has also used his columns to discuss specific reform measures that some observers would have expected the NEA to oppose outright. They have been particularly impressed by his perceived openness to a new national system of student assessment. “I thought they would be adamantly opposed to every version’’ of a national test, says Finn, who was an adviser on the president’s education plan, which calls for such testing. “They haven’t exactly said, ‘Hurrah, we’re for it.’ But by now they would have said, ‘No way,’ if they were going to behave in what I thought was a predictable manner.’'

Geiger says he has sought a “delicate balance’’ in his response to such initiatives. “I have worked very hard to not be a constant critic of the administration,’' he says. “And at the same time, there are a lot of issues on which we disagree, and I’ve had to say [so].’' But, he adds, “I want the NEA to be part of framing those issues and not always being reactive.’'

Although Geiger has been praised for his statesmanlike approach to such issues, some NEA members say they are distressed about their leader’s receptivity to the administration’s education plan, which, in addition to the national-examination proposal, includes merit pay and school choice--two policies opposed by the NEA. Harvey Press, president of the union’s Rhode Island affiliate, for example, says Geiger hasn’t been critical enough of “the flimflam, the rhetoric, and the smoke and mirrors’’ emanating from the White House.

Geiger may appear conciliatory on some fronts, but he has remained tenacious on union issues. In fact, Geiger’s first two years in office, to a large degree, have been defined by issues typically associated with labor unions. The new president even used his inaugural address to call for the extension of collective bargaining rights in every state. Despite his efforts, no state in the past two years has extended the right to bargain collectively to teachers. Still, the issue remains a high priority.

At first, this emphasis on collective bargaining “frightened a lot of people,’' says Debbie Simonds, president of the Georgia Education Association. “They felt that the Washington NEA and a Michigan teacher were going to come into Georgia and tell Georgians what was best for them. But that’s never been Keith’s approach.’'

The tough union rhetoric also has raised flags outside the organization. Jo Seker, director of Concerned Educators Against Forced Unionism, says she believes the renewed emphasis on collective bargaining, coupled with an increased number of strikes, marks a step away from the union’s emphasis on professional issues that characterized Futrell’s leadership. “His actions and leadership show very clearly,’' Seker says, “that his No. 1 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, Geiger has been finessing several delicate issues that could result in radical changes. He has been receptive, for example, to the idea of merging the NEA with its rival, the American Federation of Teachers. Unlike Futrell, Geiger enjoys a cordial relationship with AFT President Albert Shanker, who calls their relationship “close and cooperative.’'

Even though Geiger is regarded as more of a political operative than an educational thinker, the NEA has launched, under his leadership, the National Center for Innovation, which coordinates the union’s school-improvement projects. While many of the projects were begun during Futrell’s tenure, the center this year set up a new teacher education project. The NEA’s involvement in the debate over teacher preparation, although lowkey, signals, many say, that the union continues to consider professional issues a priority.

Associates note that Geiger’s intense work habits and arduous schedule took a toll on his health during his first year in office: He suffered from allergies that were aggravated by his extensive travel schedule, which took him away from his Virginia home six nights a week. He is now away from his wife, who teaches elementary school, about three nights a week.

When Geiger travels these day, he tries to speak to a broader range of organizations than in the past. He increasingly finds himself addressing business groups, which, like many others, he says, are beginning to see the union in a new light.

“Five years ago, with many of these groups, the NEA wouldn’t have even been invited, because we were looked upon as always being opposed to everything,’' Geiger says. “They are now inviting us.’'

Karen Diegmueller and Ann Bradley, Education Week

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1991 edition of Teacher as The Making Of The President