N.E.A. Charges Former Researcher With Speaking Out of Turn
Gerald W. Bracey, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association, was asked to resign recently because he repeatedly expressed his private opinions in a manner that suggested he was speaking for the union, top officials of the N.E.A. said last week.
In the past few weeks, for example, Mr. Bracey has been quoted as an N.E.A. policy analyst in stories or columns in The Washington Post, USA Today, and Education Week that have questioned the prevailing view that American schools are failing.
Mr. Bracey, who joined the N.E.A. in August, was asked on Nov. 7 by his supervisors in the education-policy and professional-practice unit--the union's internal "think tank"--to resign or be fired.
Don Cameron, the union's executive director, said Mr. Bracey had been "acting as an independent voice on behalf of the N.E.A. without going through the channels everybody else has to go through."
"The president is the spokesperson for this organization," Mr. Cameron added.
Mr. Bracey asserted last week that he was dismissed primarily because N.E.A. members had complained about his use of a quote from the writer Kurt Vonnegut referring to "nigger work" in an article Mr. Bracey wrote for the October issue of Phi Delta Kappan magazine. In the article, he calls the allegations that American schools are in crisis "the big lie."
The "N.E.A. finds it much more to its liking to try to cast it in these terms," Mr. Bracey said of Mr. Cameron's explanation for his dismissal, "rather than in racially loaded terms."
Mr. Bracey said Hank Albarelli, the executive director of the National Education Association Staff Organization--a union that represents nonmanagerial employees at the N.E.A.-had told him that the quote was the reason he was asked to resign.
Mr. Albarelli last week refused to comment on Mr. Bracey's situation.
Keith B. Geiger, the president of the N.E.A., said that some members had indeed been offended by Mr. Bracey's use of the quotation, but that the complaints were "not the deciding factor" in the decision to dismiss him.
Instead, he said, Mr. Bracey had acted on his own a number of times and had sent out "sensitive" materials that had not been discussed with his supervisors.
"This organization has spent many, many years trying to delicately deal with who speaks for the organization and the kinds of things we deal with internally before we make public statements," Mr. Geiger said.
"If he wants to be an entrepreneur," Mr. Geiger added, "he's much better off working on his own."
As an example, Mr. Geiger cited a letter from Mr. Bracey in the Oct. 30 issue of Education Week in which the policy analyst criticized Bush Administration officials for "trying to suppress" an education report that had concluded that the schools are not doing as poorly as policymakers have asserted. The report was prepared by three researchers at a federally funded research center in New Mexico as part of an Energy Department education initiative.
The letter was one of a number that Mr. Bracey says he wrote during a short period in October. He also expressed the same view, he said, in letters to the U.S. secretaries of education and energy.
In addition, Mr. Bracey wrote a letter to William Raspberry, a columnist for the Post, taking the columnist to task for writing about the failure of the education system and pointing out the research he had conducted indicating that schools are doing as well as they ever have.
In turn, Mr. Raspberry wrote a column published on Oct. 28 in which he quoted both Mr. Bracey and Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers.
"I doubt seriously that Keith Geiger liked Bill Raspberry's article," Mr. Bracey said. "It probably didn't help to see the president of the rival union being on par with a staff person in his own union."
In writing the letters, Mr. Bracey said, he was trying to draw attention to the "news" about schools' performance, and not to himself.
'If that was seen by them as entrepreneurial self-promoting,"he said, 'but I was promoting the [Kappan] article."
Mr. Bracey, who also writes a regular column on research for the Kappan, asserted that the union knew about his publications record when he was hired, and that he was not told "don't write anymore." He was to write the Kappan column on his own time, he added.
The former policy analyst said he submitted a draft of his Kappan article, containing the Vonnegut quote, to the N.E.A. when he applied for the job.
Mr. Bracey said that it was not discussed during his interview, and that N.E.A. officials did not review it before it was published.
Both Mr. Cameron and Pat Orrange, the union's director of human resources, disputed that the article had been among Mr. Bracey's writing samples.
"Nobody remembers seeing it, and nobody can find it" in Mr. Bracey's file, Mr. Cameron said.
He added that the union's differences with Mr. Bracey were "procedural, not substantive."
"I think that was an unfortunate choice of words and phraseology," Mr. Cameron said, referring to the Vonnegut quote, "but we don't fire people for stuff like that."
Before he went to work for the N.E.A., Mr. Bracey was the director of research and evaluation for the Cherry Creek, Colo., school system and, before that, in a similar position at the Virginia education department. He was known in education-research circles as one of a handful of visible district-level researchers and as a frequent contributor to the opinion pages of newspapers, magazines, and journals.
Pauline B. Cough, the editor of the Kappan, said the magazine's editors did not consider editing the Vonnegnt quotation out of Mr. Bracey's article.
"The quote is set in a context that suggests that Bracey is opposed to racism," she explained.
"The N.E.A. is highly political, and Jerry is an independent thinker and an independent speaker," Ms. Cough said. "But if that is not what they were looking for, they made a bad mistake when they hired him."
Mr. Cameron said the N.E.A. hired Mr. Bracey because of his "expertise and background in educational research."
Mr. Bracey said his supervisors at the N.E.A. asked him when he was hired whether he "could handle" spending most of his time on in-house policy analysis of such issues as early-childhood education and school choice, and that he responded that he could.
Although he complained last week that he was not given a formal orientation to the union, he acknowledged that he had been warned twice before being dismissed that he should curb his "entrepreneurial activities" in order to "prosper politically" at the union.
Mr. Bracey said his experience with the N.E.A. has left him angry.
When he was asked to resign, Mr. Bracey said, "I said N.E.A. turned out to be a bunch of gutless, spineless cowards."
The following day, when he returned to the building to pick up his possessions, Mr. Bracey said the security guard refused to let him in. After protesting, he said, he was escorted by a guard to pick up his books and then told by the building manager that he would not be allowed back in.
Later, a photo of Mr. Bracey was posted in the lobby with a notice saying he was not to be admitted to the building.
Mr. Cameron said that Mr. Bracey was "pretty abusive" during his final meeting with N.E.A. officials and that they decided he would not be welcome back into the education-policy and professional-practice unit. But he said the security guard, who works for an independent company, took it upon himself to pest the photo.
When N.E.A. officials became aware that it had been put up, Mr. Cameron said, they had it taken down.
Although the researcher had already become associated with the opinion that the schools are not in crisis when the union hired him, N.E.A. officials and Mr. Bracey both said last week that he was not hired to help the union promote that view.
Mr. Geiger said the N.E.A. rejects both the assertion that all schools are failing and the notion that schools do not need to improve.
Instead, he said, the union takes the position that "good things are going on in schools, but an awful lot of schools, for whatever reasons-buildings falling down or salaries that have to change--need to improve tremendously."
"We've tried for years to get into that position," the union president said, "and that's why we're a leader in reform. I don't want to revert to either of the two extremes."
Vol. 11, Issue 12, Pages 1, 17Published in Print: November 20, 1991, as N.E.A. Charges Former Researcher With Speaking Out of Turn