The leader of the nation’s largest teachers’ union laid out a six-point plan last week for strengthening public education.
Reg Weaver, 66, who was elected here without opposition to a second, three-year term as the president of the National Education Association, also delivered a sharp critique of the federal No Child Left Behind Act.
He called on some 8,000 union activists gathered for the NEA’s annual Representative Assembly to make a covenant with the nation that calls for better working environments and professional development for teachers, more parent involvement, “fixing and funding” the federal education law, ending privatization of the jobs of education support personnel, adequate funding of schools, and professional treatment for all educators.
Mr. Weaver called on the delegates in his July 3 keynote speech to unite to “defend public education and public school educators against the negative, mean-spirited, contrived attacks aimed at undermining and derailing the great institution of public education, while advancing the agenda of privatizing, charterizing, and voucherizing for personal gain.”
The convention of the 2.7 million-member NEA came 2½ months after the union filed suit challenging the No Child Left Behind Act, arguing that the federal government is breaking the law by demanding changes in schools without fully footing the bill. Mr. Weaver devoted a lengthy section of his speech to the law.
Attention to Gaps
The NEA president also reminded delegates of the union’s “Great Public Schools for Every Child” initiative, which it has been building since Mr. Weaver took office in 2002. The initiative now includes closing achievement gaps between students of various races, ethnicities, and family incomes; lobbying to change the NCLB law; boosting teachers’ salaries; increasing the union’s membership; reaching out to minority communities; and grassroots advocacy.
Action in those areas, he said, will help the union “set the record straight” and cultivate a political base that recognizes teachers’ good work.
Leaders of minority communities are “being courted by those who want to destroy public education, and, unfortunately, some are being persuaded” to support, for example, charter schools and vouchers, Mr. Weaver said.
He reminded the teachers of their credibility among the public as education experts, but cautioned that their standing would be hurt, especially among minority parents, if professional standards were not upheld.
“The credibility of each and every one of us is damaged when one of us is unprofessional, unprepared, and/or unwilling,” he said.
Before his speech, Mr. Weaver announced a campaign to set a floor of $40,000 for teacher pay across the country. Beginning teachers’ salaries ranged last year from about $23,800 in Montana to about $38,500 in Alaska, according to NEA figures. Mr. Weaver said the proposed salary hikes would help recruit and retain the teachers needed to help improve student achievement.
Union leaders suggested after Mr. Weaver’s speech that more specifics on closing the gaps in student achievement might have been premature. “Our general membership is not clear how big an issue this is,” said Stephanie Fanjul, the NEA’s director of student achievement. “We are working at the awareness level.”
And while the NEA’s budget for the year starting in August does not seem to reflect a greater emphasis on raising student achievement, Ms. Fanjul said that was because the budget categories had not yet been adjusted to reflect the new priorities. The student-achievement department that she directs will see its funding go up by less than 1 percent above the current year’s amount, but other departments will be spending to close the gaps as well, she said.
As evidence that the union is taking the new priorities seriously, NEA leaders pointed to a prominently situated “Great Public Schools” booth at the convention. A bank of computers there gave teachers a chance to learn about each of the six priorities, respond to questions about their own experiences with, for example, achievement gaps, and, not least, win $250 in a drawing.
The gathering also included a “symposium” where union members could hear a presentation on the latest strategies for helping students whose first language is not English. Another session featured representatives of minority groups describing their perspectives on public education.
“If we are being credible within the minority community, we have to acknowledge that all public schools are not as good as the best public schools,” said Cynthia Swann, the union’s director of minority-communities outreach. Ms. Swann said that her campaign is working to identify groups that purport to address the needs of minority communities, but in fact are against public education. Then, along with the union’s state affiliates, she said, “we start to educate [minority groups] about who these people really are and start giving them a different perspective.”
Some teachers thought Mr. Weaver’s emphasis on reaching out to members of minority groups was well founded.
“NEA is not connected as well with minority communities as we think we are,” said Donovan Mack, a high school teacher and state union official from Laramie, Wyo. “We have responsibilities to the community, and the responsibilities aren’t exclusively in the classroom, but with parents and the community.”
Outside observers also applauded a renewed effort to communicate with minority groups.
“The good news in this is it is important for teachers to reach out to minority communities and low-income communities,” said Dianne Piché, the executive director of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a nonprofit watchdog group for federal civil rights policy, based in Washington.
But longtime critics of the NEA’s fight against the No Child Left Behind Act expressed skepticism about the union’s newfound attention to achievement gaps.
“Given their record over the last few years,” said Ross Wiener, the policy director of the Education Trust, a Washington-based group that advocates higher achievement for poor and minority children, “I don’t think anyone can give them a free pass on the credibility of their claim to be working on closing the achievement gaps.”