Two Who Would Be President Vying Carefully in Tight Race

By Lynn Olson — June 07, 1989 17 min read

Washington--Early next month, 8,500 members of the National Education Association will convene here to vote for a president in one of the most charged and closely contested campaigns in the history of the organization.

First of two parts

The fight for leadership of the nation’s largest union is between Keith B. Geiger, its current vice president, and John I. Wilson, a member of the association’s executive committee, its top governing body.

Although the battle has centered primarily on differences in leadership style rather than on issues, the election could prove crucial to the future of the organization.

Under the presidency of Mary Hatwood Futrell, the 1.97-million-member union has enjoyed six years of mounting visibility and prominence.

Frequently described as the most popular president in the organization’s history, Ms. Futrell has helped the union regain a balance between professional and bread-and-butter concerns. She also has brought the nea into the midst of the school-reform movement.

During her tenure, the organization has expanded by almost 350,000 members--not only teachers but also education-support personnel and higher-education faculty.

The next leader of the nea will be in a pivotal position to carry out the initiatives begun under Ms. Futrell’s guidance.

These include the union’s involvement with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, its attempt to win greater authority for teachers at the school site, and consideration of how to alter nea’s structure to reflect its increasingly diverse membership.

“The change in leadership is going to be dramatic,” says Mark D. Waxenberg, president of the Connecticut Education Association. “Mary Futrell has raised the expectations of classroom teachers and now the next president is obligated to carry on that challenge.”

“Should a president not be able to carry the torch that Mary passes onto him,” he adds, “the nea could suffer, could take a few steps backward.”

For that reason, teachers will be watching what the candidates do and say during the organization’s annual convention with an eagle eye.

With its 8,500 delegates, the union’s Representative Assembly will be larger than the Democratic and Republican conventions of last summer combined.

Moreover, because 40 percent of this year’s delegates will not have attended an nea convention before, many will be hearing from the presidential contenders for the first time.

A ‘Delegates’ Election’

The race is so close that most observers predict it will turn on strenuous last-minute campaigning by both contenders.

Although the delegates selected by their peers to attend the Representative Assembly often vote in line with their state’s endorsement, voting is private and individuals may cast their ballots for whomever they choose.

“It’s going to be a delegates’ election this time,” says Bruce Colwell, president of the National Council of Urban Education Associations. “I don’t believe the leadership is going to be able to sway it.”

That is particularly true because Ms. Futrell has declined to endorse either candidate, leaving the race more open than usual.

A number of the largest nea affiliates--including California, New Jersey, and Texas--will not make any endorsements until the convention, if at all. And many state and local leaders say their delegates and their leadership are divided about whom to choose.

Other union members say personal loyalties and debts to one candidate or the other are shaping the campaign.

So far, a majority of the union’s executive committee, its budgetary committee, and its board of directors are backing Mr. Wilson.

But Mr. Geiger has received more state-level support.

The union vice president has earned the nod from either the boards of directors or the delegate assemblies in 16 states, including such large ones as Alabama, Florida, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Mr. Wilson has received support from the boards of directors in nine states.

Risk-taker or Team Player?

According to many nea officials, differences between the two candidates center primarily on their personalities and leadership styles.

Most observers describe Mr. Geiger as more aloof and less personable than Mr. Wilson.

The latter’s backers also portray him as more of an activist, a risk-taker, and an “ideas” person than his opponent.

“I’ve seen John take issues and move them forward,” says one nea officer who asked not to be identified. “I’ve seen a willingness to speak out on controversial matters and not sit back and see which way the wind is blowing.”

In contrast, critics characterize Mr. Geiger as “a caretaker” for the organization, an effective team player who is cautious about moving in new directions.

Nea members who approve of the union’s current direction think that is just fine, however. They are more worried that the lesser-known Mr. Wilson could prove a “surprise” once he enters office.

“I think Keith is just more tried and proven,” says Garland Pounds, president of the Alabama Education Association. “We know Keith better than we know John, and I think that most of us are very happy with the way the organization is going.”

Mr. Geiger’s fans also maintain that he has more experience than Mr. Wilson, particularly when it comes to collective-bargaining issues.

Before becoming vice president of the nea, Mr. Geiger served for four years as a local president in Livonia, Mich., and for seven years as state president. During that time, he negotiated a number of teachers’ contracts, including one of the first in the nation.

In contrast, Mr. Wilson’s home state of North Carolina still does not allow teachers to bargain collectively--a constraint that Mr. Wilson claims has made him more appreciative of the need to win such rights for all nea members.

The ‘George Bush’ Syndrome

Mr. Geiger also has served closer to the power structure within the national organization--a role that has proven both an advantage and a disadvantage, according to union members.

Because of his position as vice president, he has traveled more widely than Mr. Wilson and earned more name recognition among teachers.

He also has risen through the nea’s administrative ranks, a fact that Southern union leaders, in particular, look upon with favor.

But even Mr. Geiger agrees that he suffers from what many are calling the “George Bush” syndrome.

“In the last six years, I deliberately have become a very good vice president,” he says. “My ideas became Mary’s ideas. But I’m not supposed to be the upfront person.”

“Now people are attacking me for being a very good vice president,” he adds. “I think George Bush had some of the same problems.”

“Nobody who knows me doubts my innovativeness, or my leadership ability,” says Mr. Geiger. “But it will not be seen until I become president.”

Meanwhile, his critics complain that it is often hard to pin Mr. Geiger down on issues, and that he frequently is reticent during discussions about policy.

An ‘Educational Statesman’

The two men also have left a very different impression on nea outsiders within their home states.

Legislators and school officials in Michigan describe Mr. Geiger as a fair and candid lobbyist: an “educational statesman” who is willing to form coalitions, listen to both sides of an issue, and negotiate when needed.

“I had no problem with him whatsoever,” says Representative D.J. Jacobetti, chairman of the Appropriations Committee in the Michigan House. “I didn’t always agree with him, but he presented his problems in a manner where you sat down and listened.”

“Mr. Geiger was a very energetic, enthusiastic leader,” agrees Don R. Elliott, executive director of the Michigan Association of School Administrators. “There obviously were times when we were on opposite sides of issues, but we were able to work through those issues without personalizing them.”

“That’s one of his strengths,” Mr. Elliott adds. “You came out of those battles and you still respected him as an individual.”

A ‘Dictator’ or a Winner?

Interviews with a range of North Carolina officials suggest, on the other hand, that Mr. Wilson’s more aggressive leadership style, focused primarily on the legislature and the governor’s mansion, has drawn both grudging respect and a lot of emnity in that state.

“John’s style is definitely confrontational,” says one policymaker who has worked closely with him. “He doesn’t compromise on anything.’'

“I was not impressed with his leadership,” State Senator Harold W. Hardison told a local newspaper. “He didn’t want to work within the framework. He wanted to dictate rather than negotiate. If you didn’t agree with him, he badmouthed you.”

Gene E. Causby, executive director of the North Carolina School Boards Association, characterizes Mr. Wilson as a “reasonably effective teacher advocate,” who was less concerned with public education as a whole.

The degree to which such perceptions are due to a less hospitable union climate in North Carolina than in Michigan is difficult to assess. But several leaders suggest that Mr. Wilson’s confrontational approach as president of the North Carolina Association of Educators in 1981-82 hurt the union’s image.

In particular, they point to an ncae report card on state legislators that was initiated during Mr. Wilson’s tenure. The project, which angered and outraged lawmakers, was later dropped.

“Everybody resented the report card,” recalls one North Carolina legislator who asked not to be identified. “They just felt like he did it only to try to be critical and to hurt them in their districts.”

Mr. Wilson’s record of ruffled feathers has raised questions among some nea members about his ability to work with other groups at the national level or to engage in the delicate art of coalition-building.

But the Raleigh, N.C., teacher maintains that while his tactics may not have made him friends--particularly among the inner circle of legislative leaders--they were definitely effective.

During his term as state president, teachers gained major new benefits, including 20 additional days of paid sick leave, paternity and adoption leave, and an increase in the state’s share of health-insurance copayments from 80 percent to 95 percent. A salary freeze that was effective when he first entered office also was lifted.

In 1983-84, a poll of state lawmakers, lobbyists, and news correspondents identified Mr. Wilson as one of the 10 most influential lobbyists in the state.

“When I step outside my union to be an advocate for my members, I don’t step outside with the intention that I’m going to compromise,” Mr. Wilson says. “I step out with the intention that I’m going to achieve the very best that I can achieve for them.”

According to Karen D. Garr, current president of the ncae, within the union Mr. Wilson is a consensus-builder.

“In North Carolina, we love him,” Ms. Garr says. “He’s known throughout the nea as a consensus-builder. He seems able to work with all fac4tions and help them reach some sort of agreement and move forward.’'

“He’s done that on our board of directors, and we are a fairly divided board,” she adds. “But John is respected and sought after by both factions.”

A ‘Nonissue’?

Mr. Wilson also claims that he is more in touch with the nea rank-and-file than his opponent, because he continues to teach special education part time in North Carolina.

As a member of the nea executive committee, Mr. Wilson attends union meetings for a week out of every month and spends much of his time on the road. He has not taught full time for five years.

But he does teach when he is in town--usually 50 or 60 days a year. Mr. Geiger last taught full time in 1976-77.

“If you’ve been away from the nitty-gritty work of what our members do for 12 years,” Mr. Wilson says of his opponent, “I don’t think you can have the passion or understanding for what they do.”

Mr. Geiger brushes that criticism aside as a “nonissue.”

“You have to find something to attack,” he comments, “and he can’t attack my leadership. Mary Futrell has not been in the classroom in the 1980’s and nobody is suggesting that she’s not a good president.”

Finding the Rightful Heir

Which candidate will be best able to follow through on the agenda set by Ms. Futrell’s presidency is in fact the key question of the campaign, union members acknowledge.

But so far, neither has staked out positions markedly different from those of the union leader or from each other.

Some attribute the lack of attention to issues during the campaign, in part, to the candidates’ reluctance to distance themselves from such a popular president.

“The leadership would not like to be in a position that puts them in opposition to Mary,” says Walter J. Mika Jr., president of the Fairfax Education Association.

But while the contenders’ differences on issues are subtle--rather than striking--they still could have a significant impact on the union.

Both men have made increased pay for teachers one of their top priorities. But Mr. Wilson says he will focus, in particular, on making performance-based pay plans “propositions of the past.”

“Experience, education, and job responsibility will be the determining factors for salary schedules,” his campaign literature states. The union should “expose the misuse of evaluation systems for teacher pay,” and “stand firm in our opposition to merit pay and career-ladder programs.”

Although Mr. Geiger also opposes merit pay, he does not emphasize that point in his campaign literature. Instead, he argues that the nea should work for dramatic pay raises in a few key states that could serve as models for others and try to get more federal money for education.

‘An Elitist System’

Both men also have pledged to continue the nea’s involvement with the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. And both have expressed some caution or skepticism about the board’s future.

But Mr. Wilson has said he is against using board certification as a basis for providing some teachers with more pay than others.

“If they require someone to have earned a master’s degree or to have fulfilled certain coursework, then additional compensation for that extra time would be acceptable to me,” he says. “But I don’t believe in an elitist system.”

While the nea could not prevent an affiliate from tying salaries to national certification, he adds, he would argue strongly against it.

Mr. Geiger also says board-certified teachers probably should not earn more than other teachers. But he adds: “I believe that decision should be made at the bargaining table in the local school district.”

Unions and Professionalism

The candidates agree that the union should work to increase members’ collective-bargaining rights and, in general, steer a more forceful course in that area.

They favor using collective bargaining to develop procedures that would give teachers greater decisionmaking at the school site. And they would like to expand the scope of bargaining to encompass broader educational decisions than salary and working conditions.

But Mr. Wilson is much more adamant about what the outcome of contract negotiations regarding site-based decisionmaking should be.

At a minimum, he says, he would want a teacher majority on any school-based decisionmaking team, and he would advocate an 80 percent majority.

“Basically, those folks who are on the payroll, who are going to be held accountable, should be the ones who are making the decisions,” he asserts.

In addition, he says, the contract should provide time for members to be involved in decisionmaking at the school site, and a way for the union to help evaluate how well the process is working.

He also has suggested linking union representatives at schools nationwide via computer so that they could become key players in site4based decisionmaking.

Mr. Geiger agrees that in districts with collective-bargaining rights, the procedures for shared decisionmaking should be negotiated in the contract. “You cannot go around the contract,” he says, “there’s no question about that.”

But he emphasizes that it is up to each local affiliate to determine how many of the details regarding school-based decisionmaking they want spelled out in contract language.

If an affiliate surveys its local members and finds out they want to “cross every ‘t’ and dot every ‘i,’ then that’s what we do in the contract,” he insists. “If they want flexibility at each school, so that members in those buildings decide how it works, then we do that.”

A Local Decision?

While both men support the right of local affiliates to make their own decisions and to take risks, Mr. Geiger appears willing to give local unions a slightly freer reign.

“I think the nea should not be the place where we decide what’s best for the local,” Mr. Geiger says. “We should give them our best advice as to some of the pro’s and con’s of what they’re talking about, but when they make a decision that they want to move in a certain direction, I believe we ought to send in the best minds” to assist them.

“If it’s a situation where it is clearly a violation of our [national] policies, then we ought to take a very serious look at it,” he says. But so far, he adds, experiments with career ladders, merit pay, and peer review in places like Fairfax, Va., Iowa, and Columbus, Ohio, have not expressly negated nea doctrine.

“We have situations which press right up to the brink,” he notes, ''but I still think we owe them our best advice.”

Mr. Wilson agrees that all local affiliates “deserve support.” But there is a difference, he argues, “between aiding and abetting and supporting.”

“It may be a fine line,” he says, “but I believe it’s important for us to distinguish that fine line. We will support our local and state affiliates, but we will not necessarily aid and abet policies that aren’t good for our members”

“I’m not going to punish a local because they made a decision,” he explains. “It’s my job as president to respect the autonomy of that local organization to make that decision. But it’s also my responsibility to make sure that they have all the facts and information that I have before they make it.”

A Case of ‘Me-Too-Ism?’

Some nea members worry that Mr. Wilson’s strong views on issues, and his more aggressive leadership style, could serve as a roadblock to state and local unions that want to take risks.

“I believe that John has stands on issues that might get in the way of the rest of us,” says Kathy H. Bell, president of the Florida Teaching Profession-nea and a member of Mr. Geiger’s campaign staff.

“He really is against merit pay, which I am, too,” she says. “But I think that flexibility is needed to allow locals who want to talk about merit pay or career ladders to do so and remain part of our national association.”

Ms. Bell also questions the North Carolinian’s claim that he has worked actively to pursue Ms. Futrell’s agenda over the past six years. In executive-committee sessions and other forums, she contends, Mr. Wilson repeatedly has raised questions about some of the union’s new initiatives, particularly its involvement with the national standards board.

“While John is portraying himself as close to Mary,” she says, “I haven’t seen that in the history of what he’s done on the floor of the Representative Assembly.”

Another observer suggests that “John is doing a lot of me-too-ism out on the trail.”

But Mr. Wilson maintains that while he has questioned some of the nea’s policies over the years, “sometimes the politics of decisionmaking made people think that [Mary and I] were in greater disagreement than we really were.”

“A leader has an obligation to process members’ concerns,” he contends. “Sometimes, people like everything to be unanimous.”

Agrees Ed A. Foglia, president of the California Teachers Association: “We need to question ... ideas [that] are not quite as good as everybody is touting them to be, because no one wants to say that the emperor has no clothes.”

Mr. Wilson’s supporters maintain that with his willingness to engage in issues and his impassioned leadership, he is better equipped than Mr. Geiger to accelerate the momentum generated by Ms. Futrell.

“I see him as a man of great substance,” says Jim G. Lewis, a member of the executive committee, “and I think John has the inspirational nature that’s necessary to lead a professional union like ours.”

Mr. Wilson’s campaign literature also stresses his interest in equity issues and in the needs of disadvantaged children. In addition, he has called for the creation of a blue-ribbon committee to study the nation’s school-facility needs.

Mr. Geiger would like to create a national commission to study the economic conditions that effect education, and a long-term project that would help a select number of states make their school-finance systems more equitable.

A Difficult Transition

But whoever the winner is, most observers predict, it will be a long time before he can fill Ms. Futrell’s shoes.

“Mary has a charisma about her that you don’t replace,” says Hugh Boyle, president of the San Diego Teachers Association.

“There’s always going to be the tendency among people to compare and contrast,” adds Bob Chase, a member of the executive committee who is running unopposed for the vice presidency, “and that’s going to be tough, real tough.”

A version of this article appeared in the June 07, 1989 edition of Education Week as Two Who Would Be President Vying Carefully in Tight Race