Public Ranks Education As Top Election Issue

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NEW ORLEANS--The American public ranks "the quality of U.S. education'' as the most important issue in this year's Presidential race, according to a new Gallup poll commissioned by the NEA and released here.

Some 78 percent gave education a high rating. Other high-ranking concerns included drugs, U.S. competitiveness, the federal deficit, the homeless, and AIDS.

Two out of three respondents said they would be more likely to vote for a political candidate who favored giving teachers additional authority in determining educational programs and policies.

Nearly three out of four said they would be more likely to support a candidate who advocates basing teachers' pay on an evaluation of classroom performance, a stance the NEA opposes.

Although 79 percent said they favored increasing teachers' salaries, only 43 percent said they were willing to pay higher taxes to do so.

In his "state-of-the-association'' address, Don Cameron, the organization's executive director, told delegates that over the past year the NEA had added more than 29,000 teachers and 13,000 educational-support workers to its rolls.

Over the past six years, he said, the union has grown by roughly 300,000 members. This growth, he reported, now puts the total membership of the NEA--which is the largest labor union in the nation--at more than 1.9 million.

Aggressive organizing among higher-education faculty and educational-support workers could result in a doubling of that figure, and an increasingly diverse membership, over the next decade, said Mary Hatwood Futrell, union president, in her keynote address.

"In a few short years, we could have a radically different membership, with all the complications this new composition implies,'' Ms. Futrell said.

To prepare for the anticipated change, Ms. Futrell told the delegates she had asked the NEA's executive committee, board of directors, and state leaders to conduct a thorough examination of the union's structure and policies, and to prepare a "blueprint for the future of the NEA''

Delegates here also approved a "compromise'' resolution that relaxes the union's general opposition to linking any national certification of teachers to salaries.

Last year, the delegates authorized the NEA to "take whatever steps are reasonable and necessary'' to prevent the new National Board for Professional Teaching Standards from promoting a "linkage'' between national certification and pay.

The resolution approved this year states that compensation should be "independent of national certification unless the impact of any national certificate is determined through the collective-bargaining process where it exists, or by agreement of the local NEA affiliate in those states where [collective bargaining] does not exist.''

That says to local affiliates, according to Ms. Futrell, "that you have the option and the right to decide if you want to use [national] certification in a certain way--that it is your decision, not ours.''

The delegates also:

  • Called for special counseling for students who are "struggling with their sexual/gender orientation.''
  • Opposed curricular tracking that discriminates against poor and minority students.
  • Urged union affiliates to help create tobacco-free schools.
  • Supported policies requiring that students who are taught at home receive instruction from an individual licensed by the state in a curriculum approved by the state department of education.

As the final gavel fell here, Keith B. Geiger, the NEA vice president, and John Wilson, a member of its executive committee, announced their candidacies for the union's top job.

Ms. Futrell, who has led the union through the often turbulent years of national education reform, is entering her sixth and final year as president.

Two years ago, NEA members changed their constitution to allow the union's three elected officers to serve three, rather than two, two-year terms in office. That move was mainly to allow the popular Ms. Futrell to stay on.

Mr. Geiger, a mathematics and science teacher from Michigan, and Mr. Wilson, a special-education teacher from North Carolina, have served on the union's nine-member executive committee since 1983, when Ms. Futrell was first elected president.

Both have been presidents of their state affiliates.

"It's going to be one hell of a race,'' one state leader said.

Most agree, however, that a public or private endorsement by Ms. Futrell would give one candidate an immense advantage. "She has the influence in this organization to choose the next president,'' one executive-committee member said.

Although some here speculated that Ms. Futrell will choose not to use that influence, she said that she would "probably'' endorse one of the candidates "sometime around mid-year.''

And what will Ms. Futrell do when her term is up?

"I am looking at several options,'' she told reporters here, including returning to teaching, enrolling in a doctoral program, and running for the Congress.

"What I would really like to do is take a year off,'' she said. "I haven't had a vacation in nine years, and I need some time to rediscover Mary, and rediscover [my husband].''--BR

Vol. 07, Issue 39 Extra Edition

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