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NEA Trains Political Guns on NRA

On a February morning in 1995, a 7th grader running down the hall at Nebraska's Chadron Middle School fired a handgun into Andy Pope's classroom. Fortunately, the .22-caliber bullet that pierced the teacher's chest hit a rib, missing his heart by an inch, and the 35-year-old educator wound up returning to work the next week. No one else was injured.

At the time, the incident seemed as anomalous as its outcome was miraculous. But since then, Chadron has been joined by a growing list of communities—from Jonesboro, Ark., to Jefferson County, Colo.—where gun violence has shattered the sense of security students and educators once felt at school. Last week, Mr. Pope joined the leaders of the National Education Association at the group's annual meeting here to call for a reinvigorated campaign for stricter gun-safety measures.

"Congress should boost funding for school counseling and for after-school conflict-management programs," Mr. Pope told the gathering. "But the bottom line is that we all should agree a 13-year-old should not have access to a handgun."

Talk of gun control permeated the July 3-6 meeting, which brought together more than 9,000 delegates from around the country for the NEA's Representative Assembly, the main governing body of the 2.5 million- member teachers' union.

Delegates held a memorial for Barry Grunow, a Florida teacher shot and killed by a student at the end of this past school year, and passed a measure to launch a nationwide petition drive for federal gun-control legislation. NEA President Bob Chase also issued an condemnation of the country's leading gun-rights organization in his keynote address.

"Frankly, we are sick to death of Mr. [Charlton] Heston [the president of the National Rifle Association], and his histrionics," Mr. Chase said. "And we are sick to death of the politicians who do not have the courage to stand up to Mr. Heston and his NRA."

Although the NEA has long favored gun control, the union leader issued a renewed call for electing political candidates who support what he called "common sense" gun-safety laws, including requirements for trigger locks and mandatory background checks, and a ban on the import of high-capacity automatic weapons. ("Education Groups Set Their Sights on Influencing Debate Over Guns," April 19, 2000.)

Discussions about state-level political action also occupied much of this year's Representative Assembly. Sixty-six percent of the delegates voted to approve a $5 dues increase for members, $3 of which will support a new fund for state ballot- initiative campaigns and lobbying on state legislation. The increase, which could raise as much as $7 million a year, will stay in effect for five years.

The increased use of the ballot-initiative process—often for proposals, particularly school vouchers, that the union strongly opposes—has been a drain on the NEA's resources, officials here said. Since 1994, the national organization has sent more than $9 million to its state affiliates to use in initiative campaigns, and during this election cycle alone, state requests for assistance are expected to hit $7 million, according to an NEA report recommending the dues increase.

The other $2 from the dues increase will be used for advertising to "enhance the image of public schools and the women and men who work in them." Eighty percent of the money will be used for ad campaigns at the national level; the rest is to be distributed to state affiliates engaged in similar efforts.

While raising new money for politics, NEA leaders last week were put in the somewhat awkward position of opposing changes to the union's own rules that would have given individual members greater say in how their political contributions are spent.

A resolution put to the delegates would have required the organization to annually print a list of possible political activities to support. Members would have been able to choose which ones their money supported. In concept, the measure resembled the so-called "paycheck protection" initiatives the union has opposed that would make it harder for the organization to collect money from its members for political purposes.

The short floor debate on the issue prompted reporters at a news conference here to ask Mr. Chase if the union leadership was growing out of step with its members.

"If there is disapproval," he responded, "then it's from a very small group of our members."

The measure failed, 6,369 to 2,113.

While making no concessions in its stance against vouchers, the NEA last week did qualify its position on several kinds of school privatization. Its delegates approved a report spelling out three criteria that would merit the group's opposition: A program reduces resources available to public schools; it allows public funds to be used for religious purposes; or it jeopardizes the economic security of public education employees.

The policy position does allow for support of "tuitioning," the long-established practice in a handful of states that enables students in localities without public high schools to attend secular private schools at public expense. The NEA policy also allows for sending special education students to private schools when the local public ones cannot meet their needs.

In a move that surprised no one, the NEA's delegates voted—89 percent to 11 percent—to endorse Vice President Al Gore in his race for the White House. The presumptive Democratic nominee addressed the assembly July 6, drawing cheers as he called for further efforts to reduce class sizes, raise teacher pay, and provide new public aid for preschool programs aimed at helping children begin school ready to learn.

But the assembly's enthusiasm dropped several decibels when Mr. Gore spoke briefly about the need for greater school accountability.

Mr. Gore even referred to the previous day's vote in which delegates took a hard stance against performance-based pay, saying he believed the decision didn't diminish teachers' support for "real standards for performance."

He drew more applause, however, when he asserted that such standards need to designed with "real input from teachers."

Round 2 on the issue of an NEA merger with the 1 million- member American Federation of Teachers could be getting closer. Two years ago, NEA delegates rejected a set of "principles of unity" that would have guided the unification of the two national teachers' unions.

Mr. Chase reported to delegates that "substantial progress" had been made in laying the groundwork for further negotiations with the AFT.

During the past two years, Mr. Chase's organization has established guidelines for the merger of the unions' state affiliates, appointed a committee to recommend frameworks for new merger talks at the national level, and surveyed delegates to the 1998 meeting on which parts of the unity principles they found most objectionable. The poll found just 14.8 percent were opposed to merger altogether.

More recently, the leaders of both unions have agreed to hire a facilitator to assist in any renewed negotiations.

Outgoing NEA Executive Director Don Cameron, who plans to retire at the beginning of next year, drove home the point that the union's leadership hoped to get merger talks back on track.

"With the forces aligned against public education in this country gaining momentum, finding new ways to fight the AFT instead of partnering with them is just plain goofy," he said. "We need to get that job done ... and soon, real soon."

—Jeff Archer

Vol. 19, Issue 42, Page 22

Published in Print: July 12, 2000, as Reporter's Notebook
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