AFT, NEA Ponder Unions' Role in Teacher Quality

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New Orleans

To keep up with the increasing demands on their officers, the 3,327 delegates to the American Federation of Teachers' convention here approved a constitutional amendment creating the position of executive vice president. Nat LaCour, the president of United Teachers of New Orleans since 1972, was elected to the full-time, salaried post, which ranks behind the president and secretary-treasurer. He is expected to earn about $175,000 a year.

Nat LaCour

Mr. LaCour, the most senior of the AFT's 38 vice presidents, has long been an influential union leader. In the early 1970s, he led New Orleans teachers to the first collective bargaining arrangement in the South; UTNO also was the nation's first merged local affiliate of both the AFT and the National Education Association.

The amendment adopted at the July 17-20 convention also called for the number of vice presidents to be reduced to 37.

Sandra Feldman, who was chosen last spring by the union's executive council to succeed the late Albert Shanker, also was elected to her first full term as the president of the AFT.

Delegates backed several dues changes, including a 5-cent-a-month allocation for the Albert Shanker Institute. The institute, created by the union to honor its longtime president, was endowed by a $4.5 million donation from the AFT. It will focus on three areas dear to Mr. Shanker: education reform, workplaces issues, and worldwide democracy.

Mr. Shanker's presence was very much felt at the four-day convention. His widow, Eadie Shanker, presented the union with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, bestowed posthumously on the labor leader by President Clinton. The tribute also included a video of Jennie Shanker's ongoing work to sculpt a memorial to her father for the AFT's Washington headquarters.

A dues increase of 35 cents per member per month starting next month and another 40 cents the following September will bring per-capita national fees to $10.25 a month by next year. The revenue from the AFT membership, which is now "just a handful shy" of 1 million members, according to Secretary-Treasurer Edward McElroy, will pay for a 121 percent increase in the budget of the AFT's educational issues department; a tripling, to $3 million, of the union's advertising budget; and a 140 percent increase in expenditures on technology. The AFT is also spending 54 percent more on legislative activity and political action, Mr. McElroy said.

In her keynote address, Ms. Feldman called on state and local education authorities to cease issuing emergency credentials and misassigning teachers to subjects they aren't qualified to teach.

Those practices, she asserted, have created "a structural teacher-quality deficit" that must be remedied as the nation looks to hire 2 million teachers in the next 10 years.

If implemented, she acknowledged, her proposal would precipitate a crisis in many urban districts. New York City alone has some 8,000 emergency-certified teachers, out of a teaching force of 72,000.

Ms. Feldman called on union leaders to negotiate ways to help alleviate the crisis, including offering incentives to experienced teachers to stay on the job; flexible scheduling and part-time teaching slots for retirees or teachers on child-care leave; and incentives for teachers to become certified in fields with shortages.

Career-switchers interested in teaching shouldn't be discouraged, she said, but they must take and pass entry-level exams and be provided with training and mentoring. All new teachers should work with master teachers, she said. Teachers should receive extra pay for taking on extra classes, and they should have the autonomy to divide up classes of different sizes among themselves.

Paraprofessionals with college credits should be recruited and offered support to obtain teaching credentials, Ms. Feldman said, and qualified supervisors and administrators should be put into the classroom.

Parents of children forced to spend time in classrooms without qualified teachers should be allowed to transfer their children into another class or public school with fully certified staff members, she said.

And finally, the union president called for teachers' salaries to be raised "to put the profession where it belongs in the hierarchy of values."

Delegates approved a detailed resolution on "the union role in assuring quality teaching" that echoed Ms. Feldman's remarks. They also signed off on a detailed statement on beginning-reading instruction and a resolution spelling out how districts and union locals should approach redesigning low-performing schools.

The AFT's three-day civil rights conference, held before the convention, focused on the issue of school vouchers. Although conceding that vouchers are winning greater support among minority parents, Ms. Feldman called it "outrageous" that supporters of public aid for private school tuition are now casting vouchers as a civil rights imperative.

A panel discussion on the issue included one of the pro-voucher movement's most important spokesmen, the Rev. Floyd Flake,

Floyd Flake

a former Democratic congressman from New York City. The question-and-answer session afterward occasionally turned into a debate between union members and the African-American minister, whose church runs a private school. ("Black Parents at Heart of Tug of War," June 24, 1998.)

When pressed about whether his school served students with learning disabilities, Mr. Flake responded, "I'll tell you what we do have: We have students who were diagnosed as special ed who we took into our school, who the minute they came into that school, put on a uniform, and were in a disciplined environment, they changed their whole attitude and their whole approach to education."

Although the two have worked closely together, Ms. Feldman made her feelings clear to Mr. Flake. "You're dangerous because you're very effective and because you really don't represent the real power behind this movement," she said, "and I am afraid that you are providing them cover that they don't deserve."

While the debate about whether to merge with the American Federation of Teachers dominated the National Education Association's Representative Assembly here in the same city July 3-6, President Bob Chase focused his association's attention on educational quality for at least a single day.

At a collective bargaining conference, Mr. Chase reissued his call for "a new unionism." He urged more local affiliates to use contract negotiations not just to win better salaries and working conditions, but also to advocate greater innovation and higher quality in teaching and learning.

Such improvements are too often hampered by a lack of parent involvement, funding, and political support, Mr. Chase said. But, he added, "when the day ends, we still have to educate our kids. That's why we got involved in this profession, and that's why when we go to the negotiating table, we have to ensure that those discussions include issues of quality."

Although recognizing that some school employee groups have adopted innovative practices aimed at improving the quality of teaching, education consultant Julia Koppich told the conference that "these changes barely move us beyond the educational-improvement starting gate."

Julia Koppich

A co-author of United Mind Workers: Unions and Teaching in the Knowledge Society, she described her vision of a contract focused on educational quality. Such an agreement should set measurable improvement goals, guarantee meaningful professional development, and base salary scales more on knowledge and skills than seniority, she said.

Teachers also should have more flexibility in determining with administrators how they spend their time, she said, and hiring decisions should be a school-level concern based on teachers' talents, rather than a central-office decision based on seniority.

In another session of the collective bargaining conference, Ms. Koppich released the findings of a study on the work lives of teachers in charter schools.

Based on surveys from about 230 charter school teachers, she found that by a 3-1 ratio most of the educators would choose to work in a charter school if given the opportunity to choose again. The most common reason teachers gave for their satisfaction was greater flexibility to teach as they saw fit. For many, it was more important than salary and benefits.

The survey also revealed that teachers in charter schools do not consider their local teachers' unions very important. "To teachers at charter schools, unions and associations don't have much of a place in their professional lives," Ms. Koppich said. She stressed that her findings are preliminary because charter schools are new and sample sizes remain small.

In a scene reminiscent of a national political convention, Vice President Al Gore headlined the Representative Assembly's opening day. After watching a video highlighting his life and career, the 9,968 delegates gave the Tennessee Democrat a standing ovation.

The vice president urged the politically powerful NEA to pressure Congress to enact President Clinton's school initiatives, including federal money for school construction and the hiring of 100,000 new teachers.

When Mr. Gore also complained about the Federal Communications Commission's plan to cut the total value of the "E-rate"--which will give schools discounts on telecommunications services--Mr. Chase stepped in to remind the delegates of their potential influence.

"There are probably 12,000 people in this hall today," Mr. Chase said. "There is no reason why our legislators cannot hear from all 12,000 of us on this issue."

In fact, many delegates made their opinions known to Congress before leaving the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, courtesy of the NEA's new and ongoing "cyber lobbying" effort.

Some 1,500 members sat down at one of two dozen personal computers and drafted e-mail messages urging their representatives in Washington to support Mr. Clinton's proposal for school infrastructure aid.

Politicking the old-fashioned way hasn't lost favor, though. Throughout the four-day meeting, NEA officials and delegates denounced the efforts of conservatives to enact "paycheck protection" measures that would make it harder for unions to raise money for political contributions.

EA leaders said that while they'll continue to fight such measures in the courts, the legislatures, and at the ballot box, the organization should examine new ways of raising political funds. In a brief update on the issue, NEA General Counsel Robert H. Chanin suggested the union look into such options as on-line banking and collecting dues via credit cards. The NEA must "develop new and creative ways to maintain our membership bases and to maintain our streams of revenue," he said.


Vol. 17, Issue 43, Page 19

Published in Print: August 5, 1998, as AFT, NEA Ponder Unions' Role in Teacher Quality
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