In Defense of the N.E.A.'s Involvement in Partisan Politics

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All of Barbara Ballou's shots at the political involvement of the National Education Association miss the mark ("How Does a Partisan Teachers' Union Fairly Represent All of Its Members?" Education Week, Oct. 10, 1984). Most of them fall so wide of the target that I doubt she even took aim before firing.

Ms. Ballou argues that the NEA ought not to make endorsements in partisan political races because teachers "in many districts ... may be required to join" the association--and at least some of them prefer candidates not supported by the NEA. The truth is, neither the NEA nor any of its affiliates operate "closed-shop" or "union-shop" schools. No teacher anywhere is "required to join."

Ms. Ballou resents the use of association dues "to support candidates." Dues are not given to candidates. The law requires political contributions to come from funds established with voluntary donations. And where an "agency shop" exists, nonmembers are entitled to rebates if any part of their "equivalency fees" is used for any activity unrelated to collective bargaining.

Ms. Ballou objects specifically to the NEA's endorsement of Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro because, "Without secret-ballot votes ... no union is justified in coming out on behalf of its membership for particular candidates." The NEA's support for Mondale-Ferraro resulted from a secret ballot mailed to all 7,000 delegates to the association's 1984 representative assembly.

Ms. Ballou criticizes the NEA because "the few in leadership positions ... presume to speak for [all association members]." If by "few" Ms. Ballou means the 7,000 delegates, she should know that they in turn were elected by NEA's 1.7 million members--by secret ballot, incidentally--and they are accountable to those members for all their votes as delegates. Beyond that, it is no less appropriate for the elected president of the NEA to speak for all 1.7 million NEA members than it is for the elected President of the United States to speak for all 250 million Americans.

Ms. Ballou suggests that, where endorsements are made by secret ballot, "support for each candidate should be announced in percentage terms." That is exactly what the NEA did. It announced last August that Mondale-Ferraro had won the votes of 87.9 percent of its representative assembly delegates.

The most absurd point in Ms. Ballou's commentary is a question. "When a politically aware student asks his or her teacher why teachers hate the President of the United States," she wants to know, "what should that teacher responsibly reply?"

A "politically aware student" will surely know that statements of political preference are neither confessions of love for endorsees nor expressions of hatred for their opponents. If students do not understand that point, the teacher's reply ought to be an explanation--that neither an endorsement nor a vote implies approval of everything a candidate stands for.

Most teachers, I'm confident, are quite capable both of making that explanation and of drawing students into a meaningful discussion of why that is so--of what, indeed, democracy is all about. Barbara Ballou apparently lacks that confidence in her erstwhile colleagues--just as she lacks an understanding of how their organizations function.

Vol. 04, Issue 10, Page 19

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