A sign of the National Education Association’s intention to plow a wider policy field came last October, just after the inauguration of its new policy shop, the Center for Great Public Schools.
The union unveiled 12 recommendations for ending what it termed the dropout crisis, including compulsory high school graduation or its equivalent, special centers for returning dropouts, and more early-childhood education. The NEA also called for $10 billion in annual federal spending to finance some of the changes.
The undertaking serves the union’s purposes on several fronts. It helps prepare the broadest possible case for the changes it favors in the No Child Left Behind Act, which is supposed to come up for reauthorization this year. The NEA condemns the use of test scores alone for school accountability, and it would like to see such measures as graduation rates play a larger role than in the current system. Also, policy discussions have moved significantly to the high school level, which received relatively little attention in the 5-year-old federal law.
Finally, the dropout problem looms large for many minority communities, which the NEA is energetically courting. The on-time graduation rate for both black and Hispanic students is less than 60 percent, and for Native Americans around 40 percent. About 8 in 10 white non-Hispanic and Asian students, in contrast, graduate on time.
The press conference the NEA called to release its recommendations featured U.S. Rep. Rubén E. Hinojosa, D-Texas. Moreover, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which had been on the outs with the union over the NCLB law, issued a strong endorsement of the plan. The recommendations also drew 20 letters of support from other minority groups, according to Rhonda “Nikki” Barnes, who handles the union’s outreach to the black community.
“We’re building relationships in ethnic-minority communities where the NEA hasn’t been,” she said.
A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2007 edition of Education Week as NEA Drives Home Policy Point With Dropout Issue