The new president-elect of the National Education Association says he is not seeking to change the direction of the 3.2 million-member union.
Instead, Dennis Van Roekel says his priority when he takes office Sept. 1 will be to transform a flawed public school system that is leaving behind large numbers of minority students.
“I am not coming in with a whole new list of things to do,” Mr. Van Roekel said in an interview July 6, the last day of the NEA’s annual convention here. “I don’t think it’s about me; it’s about the organization. I am going to do all I can during my time to move the mission of this organization along,” said Mr. Van Roekel, who is completing his second term as vice president under President Reg Weaver.
During the four-day Representative Assembly, 10,000 delegates from around the country heard from the new executive leadership, including Mr. Van Roekel, Vice President-elect Lily Eskelsen, and Secretary-Treasurer-elect Becky Pringle. While Mr. Van Roekel and Ms. Eskelsen ran unopposed, Ms. Pringle defeated contender Marsha Smith with 80 percent of the vote.
Delegates cheered for the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, whom they voted to support, and who spoke to them via live satellite feed on the third day of the Representative Assembly. But they booed him for mentioning performance pay.
They debated—and partly defeated—an attempt by the union leadership to allow private school workers to join the NEA. The delegates also lined up patiently to get their pictures taken with Mr. Weaver and asked Mr. Van Roekel for his autograph.
Mr. Van Roekel, 61, a former mathematics teacher from Arizona, laid out his priorities in his speech July 6 in which he said he would continue to unite members, in Mr. Weaver’s footsteps, and work for great public schools.
The NEA last week released a list of its priorities for improving the federal No Child Left Behind Act, including support for the teaching profession, sustained federal funding for mandates, and support for innovation and best practices.
“I imagine what it must feel like to be in a [school] building where the entire entity supports and believes in every child that walks through the door. ... I dream of the day when that happens. And it is our responsibility as an organization to make that vision real,” Mr. Van Roekel said.
Boos and Cheers for Obama
Earlier, speaking to Education Week, Mr. Van Roekel described himself as a “passionate man” who wanted to become a teacher from the time he was in 7th grade. “For 25 years, I lived the dream,” he said, adding that he went into teaching because “I wanted to make a difference.”
But as he got involved with his local union, he said, he realized that it was by changing public policy that he could make a difference for children around the nation. “In the past six years, I have not been in a school anywhere where they did not want to talk about NCLB,” Mr. Van Roekel said.
Mr. Obama, in his speech, also pledged to fix the “broken promises of NCLB.” He drew cheers for saying he opposes the use of public money for private school vouchers, and for pledging to pay for the college tuition of those who choose to go into teaching.
But he also drew some boos when he spoke about performance pay, for which he has in the past expressed support, including at the last NEA convention.
“Under my plan, districts will be able to design programs that give educators who serve as mentors to new teachers the salary increase they deserve. They’ll be able to reward those who teach in underserved areas or take on added responsibilities. And if teachers learn new skills to serve students better, or if they consistently excel in the classroom, that work can be valued and rewarded as well,” the senator from Illinois said, while some delegates booed and others stood silent.
“I said it then, and I am saying it again today, because it’s what I believe,” Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Van Roekel said the union remains “very opposed” to any system that determines teacher pay based on test scores. Instead, he said, the NEA wants to work with states on building student-achievement systems that would measure more than just test scores.
Barring Private School Workers
The four days of the Representative Assembly also saw debates, some highly charged, on a number of new business items, resolutions, and amendments to NEA bylaws.
A push by the NEA leadership to admit private school workers was strongly opposed by members who said it would generate conflicts when it came to the union’s position on vouchers and religion in schools. Some private schools are religious.
The delegates finally voted to allow private preschool workers to gain admission to the NEA, contingent on the approval of the state affiliate, but defeated an amendment that would have also permitted private elementary and secondary school employees to become members of the union.
Delegates later also voted to study the potential effect of opening active membership to private school workers “to better understand the complexities on all sides of the issue.”
The Representative Assembly also voted to back teaching students the appropriate use of cellphones and other electronic devices in the classroom. In recent years, educators have increasingly voiced concern about students taping them secretly in class and posting the videos on forums such as YouTube, an online video-sharing site.
On the final day, delegates heard from outgoing President Weaver, who exhorted them to continue to hunt for solutions to the problems confronting public education.
“You must never forget,” he said, “that together we are a powerful force that can do some powerful things for public education.”