School Choice & Charters

NEA Delegates Block Private School Workers From Membership

By Vaishali Honawar — July 15, 2008 4 min read
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Employees of private K-12 schools won’t be able to join the National Education Association any time soon, after nearly two-thirds of the delegates at the union’s annual convention turned down a proposal from the executive leadership to accept them.

The 10,000 delegates attending the Representative Assembly held here July 3-6 voted, however, to allow private preschool workers to join the NEA’s membership ranks. Doing so would be contingent on the approval of the state affiliate.

During the four-day Representative Assembly, delegates representing the union’s state and local affiliates heard from the new executive leadership, including President-elect Dennis Van Roekel, Vice President-elect Lily Eskelsen, and Secretary-Treasurer-elect Becky Pringle.

Delegates cheered for the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama. They voted to support the senator from Illinois for the Oval Office, who spoke to them via live satellite feed, but booed him for mentioning performance pay.

The business item on allowing private K-12 school workers to join the union ranks originated in a special committee appointed by the NEA. The committee made the recommendation after studying the issue, said Mr. Van Roekel. Private school workers were organized by the NEA in the past, but restrictions on who could be admitted were put in place after 1993.

Officials warned that by keeping out private school workers, the union could lose out on a significant chunk of workers that other labor unions might then try to organize.

“If there is a workforce out there and it is unrepresented, there will be a vacuum. These people need union representation. If not the NEA it will be the SEIU, the AFSCME, or the AFT,” said Robert H. Chanin, the NEA’s general counsel. SEIU is the Service Employees International Union, AFSCME is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, and AFT is the American Federation of Teachers.

But delegates worried that allowing private school workers to join could cause conflict when it came to issues like the union’s position on vouchers, which the NEA opposes, and religion in schools. Some private schools have religious affiliations.

“I see this as hypocritical,” said Marilyn Calhoun, a delegate from Arizona. “Many of these [private] schools exist as a result of vouchers.”

Delegates did, however, vote later 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 Same Path

Delegates also heard from the union’s incoming president, Mr. Van Roekel, who laid out his priorities in a speech July 6, saying he would continue to unite members, in Mr. Weaver’s footsteps, and work for great public schools.

The union 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 promotion of 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,” said Mr. Van Roekel, a former mathematics teacher from Arizona. “And it is our responsibility as an organization to make that vision real.”

For more stories on this topic see Teachers and No Child Left Behind.

Earlier, in an interview, Mr. Van Roekel, 61, said he is not seeking to change the direction of the 3.2 million-member union. Instead, he said, 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,” he said. “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 Mr. Weaver.

Boos and Cheers for Obama

One of the most anticipated moments of the convention was the appearance by Sen. Obama. In his speech from Butte, Mont., Mr. Obama pledged to fix the “broken promises of NCLB.”

He drew cheers for opposing vouchers and vowing 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,” Sen. Obama 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,” he 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 wanted to work with states on building student-achievement systems that would measure more than just test scores.

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 the disruption caused by cellphones in class, as well as over students taping them secretly in class and posting the videos on forums such as YouTube, an online video-sharing site. (“Cellphones in Classrooms Land Teachers on Online Video Sites,” Nov. 7, 2007.)

A version of this article appeared in the July 16, 2008 edition of Education Week as NEA Delegates Block Private School Workers From Membership


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