Veteran Union Leader to Head AFT

By Linda Jacobson — July 20, 2004 4 min read
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Promising to advance the “same important causes” championed by his two predecessors at the American Federation of Teachers, Edward J. McElroy was elected president of the 1.3 million-member union July 17.

New AFT president Ed McElroy .
New AFT president Ed McElroy speaks at the AFT’s annual convention on July 17. The convention, held in Washington DC, featured a farewell address by outgoing AFT president Sandra Feldman, speeches by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), best-selling author Azar Nafisi, and debate on a wide range of policy resolutions.
—Photograph courtesy of AFT

By a nearly unanimous vote, delegates chose Mr. McElroy to fill the position left open by Sandra Feldman, who had announced that she would not seek re-election because of her ongoing battle with breast cancer and the treatments required.

Ms. Feldman threw her support behind Mr. McElroy, who, as secretary-treasurer, has been second in command at the union since 1992.

“Al [Shanker] and Sandy devoted their great intellect and energy to the AFT, and we have an obligation to continue their work,” he said in his speech to the delegates the following morning. “And we will. We are all part of the same team.”

But Mr. McElroy, 63, also spoke about additional challenges ahead for the union, including taking a more critical view of the federal No Child Left Behind Act. He called the law’s goals “arbitrary and unattainable.”

“We are going to work to correct the defects in this law,” he said. “We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, but we definitely want to get rid of the dirty bath water.”

Members also demonstrated that they agree with him by approving a resolution sponsored by the union’s executive council that calls on either the U.S. Department of Education or Congress to “alter the unreasonable rules and regulations and implement the improved rules consistently.”

Playing on the name of the law, the “Moving Every Child Forward” resolution calls the “adequate yearly progress” provisions “neither research-based nor scientifically reliable and valid,” and says that the goals of the law have been undermined by “two years of inept and opportunistic implementation by President Bush’s Department of Education.”

Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, dismissed the criticism.

“Let’s face it: The point of the law is the child, not the system,” she said. “We’re only two years into fixing systemic public education problems that have been 40-plus years in the making. In the past, we just threw money at the problem. Now, we’re demanding results for the taxpayers’ hard-earned billions. The law’s flexible,” she added, “and the guidance and regs we’ve issued over the past year prove it.”

Union leaders, however, don’t think the department has done enough. “This resolution represents a strong new ... policy for the AFT on what should be done to fix the law,” said Tom Mooney, the president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers.

The action, however, is a departure for the union and its leaders. While they had no formal position on the legislation when it passed Congress with broad, bipartisan support in 2001, they had expressed optimism about the law’s potential to improve schools. In contrast, the National Education Association has been fighting the law from its beginnings.

At the time of its passage, Ms. Feldman said that “the basic framework of this legislation builds on what was started in the last reauthorization [of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act] and includes reforms that the AFT has championed.”

‘Stop This Exodus’

In addition to working for revisions to the federal law, Mr. McElroy pledged to make teacher retention a focus of his two-year term. While stagnant salaries contribute to educators’ departures from the profession, he said, “unrealistic expectations” and “inadequate supports” also play a part.

“We have got to stop this exodus from public education,” he said. “After all, the conditions that are good for teachers, that keep them in the classroom, are good for their students, as well.”

Before being elected to the post of secretary-treasurer, Mr. McElroy joined the AFT executive council in 1974, and was re-elected every two years. In 2001, he was also elected to the executive council of the AFL-CIO, with which the AFT is affiliated.

A former high school English and social studies teacher in Warwick, R.I., Mr. McElroy was elected president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers at age 30.

The third member of Ms. Feldman’s leadership team, Nat LaCour, was elected to succeed Mr. McElroy as secretary-treasurer. A former president of the AFT’s state affiliate in New Orleans, Mr. LaCour has held the office of executive vice president since 1998.

And finally, Antonia Cortese, the first vice president of the New York State United Teachers, was elected to move into the position of executive vice president.

While delegates at the convention said Ms. Feldman will be missed, they voiced confidence in Mr. McElroy’s ability to lead the union.

“He knows leaders [around the country] on a close-up, personal basis, and he’s been part of the team that has created a vision over a 30-year period,” said Herbert Magidson, a retired teacher and a delegate from the United Federation of Teachers in New York City.

And Shirley Verdugo Perez, a first-time delegate from the Chicago Teachers Union, said Ms. Feldman “was a great step-in for Shanker. I’m sure Ed McElroy will be a great step-in for her.”

Assistant Editor Bess Keller contributed to this report.


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