AFT Opens Political War Chest for State Affiliates
Flashy, clamoring Las Vegas did its best to distract members of the American Federation of Teachers, but delegates to the union's biennial convention nonetheless passed a flurry of amended and new policies July 15-18.
In an uncontested bid for president, Sandra Feldman was re-elected to her third two-year term to lead the 1.3 million-member union.
"I'm proud to say that we are the fastest-growing union in the labor movement—and have been for the past five years," Ms. Feldman told a cheering audience of more than 3,600 delegates in her keynote address.
Leaders of the AFT had lobbied hard for the passage of a provision they said would help keep the union powerful: the collection of a $6.5 million war chest to fight political battles at the state level.
Members will send 67 cents monthly to union headquarters in Washington to be placed in a "solidarity fund." Twenty-five cents of that money from each member will be redirected to state affiliates immediately, pending project approval by the AFT. National officials will use the remainder to support or oppose state-level initiatives.
While state affiliates and the national organization have always lobbied on behalf of their members, an imperative need exists to fight an increasing number of state referendums, ballot initiatives, and harmful legislation, said Herb Magidson, an AFT vice president.
The AFT joins the National Education Association in establishing such a special fund. Two years ago, delegates to the NEA convention voted to amass a similar pot of money that would raise $7 million annually, two-thirds of which was to be earmarked for and against state ballot initiatives and legislation. ("Reporter's Notebook,", July 12, 2000).
Delegates to the AFT gathering also spent a good deal of time talking about the impact of the standards-based school agenda, and, more specifically, implications of the new version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, known as the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001. The law overhauls federal funding and sets school accountability rules requiring annual math and reading assessments in grades 3-8, among other mandates.
The union's current policy supports the use of high-quality standards-based assessments, which it deems critical but often wrongly implemented or misused.
Members overwhelmingly approved a blueprint for states to help them implement standards-based measures and directed union leaders to take action in light of the ESEA.
The union will call on the federal government to form an independent, nonpartisan body to provide the public with information on the system; track student-testing practices to ensure they are used responsibly; establish and publicize guidelines for the use of such assessments; support the development of responsible reporting procedures; identify and disseminate professional- development programs for teachers so that they can effectively utilize such data; and provide tutorials to help educators collect and present credible evidence of student learning that goes beyond standardized testing.
"This goes a long way in providing a framework ... for states and locals," said Brenda L. Mitchell, the president of the United Teachers of New Orleans.
But others criticized such testing programs altogether. "Standardized tests have taken away the soul of what we do," said Michelle Ivy, a high school social studies teacher in Miami Beach, Fla.
Ms. Feldman warned delegates against fighting the reform movement as articulated in the ESEA. Now that it is the law of the land, the AFT president said, the union must work to ensure it is implemented in a way that's positive, "fighting intelligently" to preserve the organization's vision.
The convention also served as a forum to unveil the AFT'S Kindergarten Plus, a plan designed to close the achievement gap between poor students and their better-off peers.
The federal government could—and should—lessen the problem by financing pre- and post-kindergarten classes for 145,000 of America's neediest students, Ms. Feldman argued. The effort would cost $285 million annually—the same amount provided in tax breaks to WorldCom Inc., in fiscal 2000, she said. The telecommunications giant has been mired in scandal since its questionable financial practices were exposed.
Although no members of Congress had yet reviewed or pledged their commitment to such a concept, delegates applauded it, calling it common sense.
Union officials also released an annual state-by-state report on teacher pay, indicating that both beginning and veteran educators are enjoying raises— though more experienced teachers aren't sharing the same percentage increases.
The average salary for new teachers was $28,986 in the 2000-01 academic year, up 4.4 percent from 1999-2000, the report says. Meanwhile, those with 14 or 15 years of experience or a master's degree were paid $43,250, a 3.4 percent increase over the previous year.
The pay of midcareer professionals could not be ascertained, officials said.
Vol. 21, Issue 43, Page 15Published in Print: August 7, 2002, as Reporter's Notebook