'Lessons for Life' Campaign Is Front and Center at AFT Convention

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Delegates to the 74th national convention of the American Federation of Teachers heard about the unions "Lessons for Life" campaign nearly everywhere they went.

AFT President Albert Shanker highlighted the campaign in his keynote address to the 3,000 delegates gathered here last month. Celebrity speakers endorsed the effort, a special booth offered help with local implementation, and a well-polished video touted the campaign's success around the country.

The year-old campaign calls for cooperation among teachers, school districts, and parents to raise the standards of conduct and academic achievement in public schools. Its centerpiece is a 10-point "Bill of Rights and Responsibilities." (See Education Week, Sept. 6, 1995.)

Teachers in many AFT affiliates around the country are seeking, or have received, endorsement of the campaign from school administrators, business and legislative leaders, and community-based organizations. Yet for some of the 900,000-member union's affiliates, tensions with administrators and other local concerns have prevented them from going forward with the campaign.

In a strongly worded speech Aug. 2, Mr. Shanker told the delegates that the union must be unified behind the Lessons for Life campaign. Mr. Shanker, who has been undergoing chemotherapy for lung cancer, had postponed his address from his initially scheduled time slot the day before because he did not feel well.

When he appeared, the 67-year-old union leader joked about his lack of hair and remained seated while speaking, but nonetheless delivered a spirited address. He reminded delegates that he had told members at regional meetings that any local that had not signed on to Lessons for Life was "engaged in union malpractice."

"It is as much your duty to preserve public education as it is to negotiate a good contract," Mr. Shanker told the delegates.

Guest speakers at the convention also endorsed the program.

Vice President Al Gore told the delegates that he and President Clinton "enthusiastically endorse" the 10-point list of rights and responsibilities.

And actor Richard Dreyfuss, who starred as a music teacher in last winter's movie "Mr. Holland's Opus," was hailed by Mr. Shanker as "one of the first nationally prominent people to endorse Lessons for Life."

Mr. Dreyfuss said in an interview that he supported the campaign because it was a matter of getting back to basics. "It's common sense," he said.

Included in the "Bill of Rights" are statements that students and school staff members have a right to learn and work in schools that are safe, orderly, drug free, and have rigorous academic standards.

The video presentation focused on the success of the campaign in places such as Florida, where the union's state affiliate built its lobbying agenda around Lessons for Life and secured into law provisions that would strengthen teachers' protection in the classroom and authority on discipline issues.

But some delegates said they had trouble implementing the campaign despite its simple, upbeat message.

Participants in a workshop said some members of their locals lacked motivation to lobby for the campaign or saw more need to fight for bread-and-butter union issues such as health-care benefits. Others said some district administrators saw little reason to embrace a campaign bearing the AFT label.

Thomas Brischler, the president of the 1,200-member Sachem Central Teachers Association in Lake Ronkonkoma, N.Y., said he supported the campaign. But he was not able to implement it, he said, while his union quarreled with the district over a contract.

"Sleeping with the enemy and fighting with the enemy really don't sit too well with the members," he said.

Ann Mitchell, the AFT's Lessons for Life field coordinator, acknowledged that, initially, some locals treated the effort as little more than a public relations campaign. Many began implementation AFTer more detailed information became available, she said.

In other business, the convention delegates unanimously re-elected Mr. Shanker as president of the union, marking his 22nd year at its helm.

Attendees also endorsed President Clinton and Vice President Gore for re-election, repeating an endorsement made four years ago.

And, AFTer giving a warm welcome to an entourage of guests from the National Education Association, the delegates approved a no-raid agreement between the AFT and the 2.2 million-member NEA. The NEA approved the same agreement at its convention in July.

The two unions "will respect the established representative status of the other party and its affiliates" and will encourage their affiliates to cease challenges to one another in local districts, according to the agreement.

"We felt and they felt that at least for a time that the raiding should stop," Mr. Shanker said in his speech. The unions wanted to avoid a situation in which the two national organizations negotiated a merger but then encountered opposition from affiliates that were angry about raiding activity.

"We didn't want to jeopardize what was possible on that basis," Mr. Shanker said. --JEANNE PONESSA

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