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NEA President on School Reform: ‘The Corporate Model Is Crumbling’

By Alyson Klein — July 27, 2016 5 min read
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The nearly eight years of the Obama administration haven’t exactly been a cakewalk for the National Education Association. But the union’s president, Lily Eskelsen García, thinks things are looking up

First, Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, which seeks to broaden accountability beyond tests and bars the federal government from interfering with teacher evaluations, school turnarounds, and more. And now the Democrats have nominated Hillary Clinton, a candidate that Eskelsen García believes will be in the union’s corner.

“She’s going to listen to a lot of people. But we’re going to be in her ear first, talking about things like what English-language learners need, what students in special education need, and what a test measures and what it doesn’t measure,” Eskelsen García told me as she bounced from one event to another here.

The union will no longer be “sitting at the children’s table, after the adults, or the people that think that they’re the adults, the decision and then we’re the first to know about it,” she added.

Over the past eight years, NEA has had to swallow a slew of policies it didn’t really like, especially teacher evaluations based on test scores, and work with former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, whom some NEA members here have described as “trainwreck.”

But Eskelsen García thinks that the Democrats who supported many of those ideas—teacher merit-pay, charter schools, alternative routes into the teaching profession—are in a tight spot these days.

“The corporate model is crumbling of its own absurdity,” Eskelsen García said."Now the [Democrats for Education Reform] are in town and they are having a real hard time this time making any kind of case. ... It’s all about vouchers and charter schools and Teach for America. ... They can’t point to one success. Wherever they’ve said ‘This will move the needle,’ it didn’t.”

Of education reformers, she said, “their balloon is pffft!” (she made a deflating sound) and then joked “I’m not sure how you’re gonna spell that.” (Probably unsurprisingly, Education Reform Now, the non-profit think tank affiliated with DFER, a political action committee, sees all these things very differently. Check out what it had to say here.)

Endorsement Drama

That’s not to say the Democratic National Convention is all sunshine and puppies for the NEA. A vocal contingent of delegates remain really, really unhappy with the union’s decision to endorse Clinton early, without giving her primary opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a chance to catch fire, or at least to extract more policy promises from Clinton.

And the American Federation of Teachers, the other national teachers’ union, is feeling some of the same heat. Case in point: Mindy Rosier, a 10-year special education teacher in New York City schools and alternate delegate for New York state, said, even eight months after the endorsement, the sting hasn’t gone away for many like her. “A lot of teachers, they don’t want Hillary, they don’t like her,” said Rosier.

What’s more, plenty of teachers, even those who say they plan to support Clinton, worry that she’s going to follow President Barack Obama’s lead on education policy, which, in their view, isn’t a good thing.

But Eskelsen García, who started out as a school lunch lady before becoming a teacher, and finally a union president, sticks by the move. After all, she said, the union stayed neutral during the primary in 2008, and ended up with a president with whom it often clashed on K-12 policy.

“For me it was OK, so we found someone who will be good on our priority issues and will respect us. So we

say to ourselves, when is it most advantageous to do that process? At the end? Like we did with President Obama? Or at the beginning? If we’re really going to do this right, we find the right candidate, and we get in early so that we can have our voice heard and respected.”

And most NEA members she’s met here are as pumped about Clinton as she is, she said. “Our members are very excited that we are with Hillary, the majority of them,” she said.

Who does Eskelsen García want to see as secretary of education? “It’s premature to start naming a cabinet,” she said.

That’s not to say teachers here aren’t curious. Some of her members have told her that, “I’ll support Hillary when I know who her secretary of education will be.”

Eskelsen García noticed their “Bernie buttons” and asked, “‘Who did Bernie tell you his secretary of education was going to be?’ And they went, ‘Oh well, you know, that’s different.’”

Some teachers here have told us they want someone with classroom experience. Eskelsen García agrees that’s a great quality, but she also pointed to Bill Clinton’s secretary, Richard Riley, who was a governor, not an educator, before taking the job. He was a great secretary of education, she said.

So what’s it like to be a union president at the Democratic National Convention? Exhausting, apparently.

Eskelsen García was up at 5:45 a.m. Tuesday for an interview with CNN. That was after going to bed at almost 2 in the morning, following a night of celebrating with other labor leaders. Then she was at a brunch for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee—which, as the name implies, is in charge of getting Democratic senators elected. (That event It was closed to press.)

Then, she headed to three more events in the roughly two hours I spent with her.

First came a luncheon hosted by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, which seeks to put party members in state legislatures. It took place on the top floor of a restaurant with panoramic views of the city. She urged the group to consider what sorts of factors beyond test scores their states might measure in gauging school performance, noting for instance, that states could choose to incorporate access to advanced coursework. She snapped a picture with a couple of state lawmakers from Tennessee.

Then she swung by an event sponsored by the Democratic Governor’s Association (again, closed to press), and then one aimed at getting out the Latino vote.

How does Eskelsen García stay fueled? Fast food, especially Happy Meals, which are easy to eat with one hand when she’s on the go. She’s also a big fan of Wendy’s frosties.

Photo: NEA President Lily Eskelsen García greets Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, near a Democratic Governors Association in downtown Philadelphia. Deanna Del Ciello for Education Week.

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