Equity & Diversity

Abortion and White Fragility: 5 Key Issues at the NEA Convention

By Madeline Will — July 08, 2019 7 min read
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When thousands of educators from across the country met last week at the National Education Association’s representative assembly, they debated several socially charged issues. And several of the outcomes of those debates seem to suggest that the nation’s largest teachers’ union is moving in a more openly progressive direction.

One of the big items delegates passed was a constitutional amendment that opened up NEA membership to “community allies,” such as parents and other supporters of education. Delegates also debated several measures related to the union’s endorsement process.

Delegates heard from 10 Democratic presidential candidates, including frontrunners Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren. And on the first day of the representative assembly, educators marched to a facility for immigrant youth in protest.

But in between those flashy moments, delegates debated about 160 new business items, along with a slew of legislative and constitutional amendments. (For more on what a new business item means, check out this handy explainer. In short, they are measures submitted by at least 50 delegates that direct the NEA to do something for a year.) Here’s what else you need to know:

1. Delegates voted to create a pilot program in which two educators of color from at least 10 states are charged with recruiting high school and college students of color into the teaching profession.

“Everybody understands that we need more teachers of color, it’s just that there’s not enough of us actually doing the work,” said Kumar Rashad, a delegate from Louisville, Ky., who introduced the new business item, in an interview. “With this NBI, I was basically saying, ‘Enough talk, let’s do it.’”

About 80 percent of public school teachers across the United States are white. Rashad has been working to recruit teachers of color for 15 years now—from high school and college students to support staff at schools. He said it’s important for these prospective educators to receive mentorship and support from other educators of color, as well as assistance with passing licensure tests. Aspiring teachers of color fail those exams at a higher rate than their white counterparts.

While this business item will only be in effect for a year, Rashad said he hopes that he will be able to gather data this year to make the case for scaling the program to more states and, eventually, the whole country. He was pleasantly surprised that his proposal (which he designed with delegate Naomi Johnson-Lafleur) passed, he said.

“I’ve been going to [representative assemblies] for about three, four years now, and there’s always been some type of pushback with some of the racial issues, but I feel like ... every year, it gets a bit less,” he said. “We’re moving [in a] progressive ... direction.”

The new business item was one of the more expensive measures passed, with a cost of $178,000. Rashad said the money would go toward hiring someone to oversee the program, travel costs for participants, and an in-person training.

2. After much debate, delegates voted to pass a new business item that vocalized support for both the #MeToo movement against sexual assault and the “fundamental right to an abortion.”

"[T]he NEA will include an assertion of our defense of a person’s right to control their own body, especially for women, youth, and sexually marginalized people,” the business item read. “The NEA vigorously opposes all attacks on the right to choose and stands on the fundamental right to abortion under Roe v. Wade.”

During debate, several members expressed concern about taking a clear position on such a charged issue, and tried to strike the language referring to abortion from the business item. Some said that supporting this business item could cause educators who are against abortion to leave the NEA. One delegate said she thought the union should stick to “teacher things.”

Indeed, the NEA has long shied away from vocalizing support for abortion. Union watchdog Mike Antonucci pointed to a 2005 document in which the NEA responded to common criticisms, including one that said NEA supports abortion.

“NEA supports reproductive freedom without government intervention,” officials wrote at the time. “NEA does not have a pro-abortion policy. Period.”

3. Delegates passed a business item directing NEA to incorporate the concept of “white fragility” into NEA trainings and staff development, literature, and other communications.

Scholar Robin DiAngelo has defined the term white fragility as “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.” In other words, the concept explains why many white people are reluctant to talk about racism.

This was another heated debate, with some delegates feeling targeted by the language in the new business item.

“When the language of NBIs insinuates that ALL white people are the issue because of ‘white privilege’ or ‘white fragility,’ I find it hurtful,” one delegate wrote on Twitter. “The idea seems to be that nothing I do will make up for ANY atrocities because I am white.”

But other delegates applauded the effort to make the union more explicit in how it talks about race and unconscious biases.

4. Delegates narrowly voted down a bylaw amendment that would have established a permanent fund for teacher strikes.

Last year, delegates passed a new business item that established a voluntary membership donation of at least $3. The money would go to a fund to support strikes or other statewide labor actions, such as a short-term work stoppage.

But over the past year, the fund only raised $910. Delegates submitted an amendment to codify the fund into the union’s bylaws, so it would be a permanent fund to support work actions. There has been a rash of teacher activism in the past two years—from statewide walkouts like those in West Virginia and Oklahoma to big-city strikes in Los Angeles and Denver to one-day protests in Virginia and North Carolina.

During the debate, several delegates expressed concern about encouraging strikes. Teacher strikes are illegal in at least 35 states. (Although that did not stop teachers in, say, West Virginia.) The end result was close: 50.27 percent of delgates voted “no” on establishing the permanent fund in a secret ballot. A simple majority is required to pass bylaw amendments.

Delegates also voted down a new business item that would have asked the NEA to “encourage educators to engage in labor actions in ways each state affiliate and locals deem appropriate to support the student-led global strike on Sept. 20, 2019 to halt [the] climate crisis.” (The business item had originally gone even further and called for a national teacher strike against climate change.)

5. NEA Vice President Becky Pringle, self-described “social justice warrior,” announced her candidacy for NEA president.

Lily Eskelsen García is heading into the final year of her second term as president. (NEA officers can serve two three-year terms.) Pringle, a former middle school science teacher from Pennsylvania, is so far the only candidate to vie for her spot.

In her official bio, Pringle has described herself as a “fierce social justice warrior, defender of educator rights, and an unrelenting advocate for all students and communities of color.” She leads NEA’s work on institutional racism—"spotlight[ing] systematic patterns of racism and educational injustice that impact students.”

“Those who say we have no business being in politics could not be more wrong,” Pringle said in a speech to delegates this year. She paraphrased Plato: “Anyone who thinks they are too good or too smart to be involved in politics will be ruled by those who are neither good nor smart.”

Delegates will elect a new president at next year’s representative assembly.

Image: Delegates cheer before the start of the National Education Association’s presidential forum on July 5 in Houston. —David J. Phillip/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.