Over the course of four days here in the Windy City, thousands of educators gathered to debate heated education issues, including abortion, anti-LGBTQ bills, police in schools, and more. These debates are the heart of the National Education Association’s convention—comprising dozens of measures that will set the nation’s largest teachers’ union’s direction for the next year.
The NEA’s 101st representative assembly was, for the first time, a hybrid meeting: About 4,500 delegates attended in person and 1,500 attended virtually. This year marked somewhat of a return to normal, after the past two representative assemblies were held virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Delegates heard from a range of speakers, including Vice President Kamala Harris, two of the stars from the ABC sitcom “Abbott Elementary,” Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, and country music icon Dolly Parton, who accepted the union’s “Friend of Education” award virtually. In between the speeches, delegates voted on the budget and scores of proposals.
Here are five things to know about this year’s assembly, and what they mean about the NEA’s upcoming priorities.
(And stay tuned: The American Federation of Teachers, the other national teachers’ union, will meet in Boston for its biennial convention next week. EdWeek will be bringing you coverage of that gathering, too.)
1. The NEA reported its revenue and membership numbers.
In its 2022-24 strategic plan and budget, which was adopted by delegates, NEA says it will have about 2.33 million full-time equivalent members—which includes teachers, education support professionals, community allies, and retirees—in this new fiscal year. (In total, the NEA has about 3 million members, but many of those are part-time teachers. For the purposes of the budget, NEA just counts full-time equivalents.)
The union had planned for significant membership losses during the pandemic, which did not fully materialize. Still, membership has fluctuated in recent years. In 2020, NEA reported having 2.42 million members. And in 2019, the year after the U.S. Supreme Court struck a blow to labor unions by prohibiting the collection of some fees, the NEA recorded about 2.29 million members.
In 2019-20, the NEA added a new membership category for non-educators. There are now 6,300 community allies, who may be parents or other supporters of the union’s work. These members pay a $25 annual fee.
The NEA expects to receive about $372 million in revenue from dues this fiscal year. This money goes toward advancing the union’s priorities and general operations.
For instance, the union plans to spend more than $47 million to elect friendly candidates, promote the importance of pro-public education and pro-labor judges, lobby for or against legislation, and support state and local affiliates in ballot measure campaigns. And the union is allocating nearly $7 million for efforts to improve its perception among both members and the general public, which will include a survey to track attitudes toward unions and NEA’s work over time.
The NEA will also spend about $5 million advocating for “well-rounded curricula,” which includes developing “legal tools supporting members seeking to ensure state standards require students to learn the full sweep of U.S. history.”
NEA President Becky Pringle’s base salary this fiscal year is $330,727, about a 3 percent raise from last year.
2. Delegates took a strong stance in support of abortion rights.
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, removing the constitutional right to abortion. The decision could have wide-ranging effects on the nation’s public school system.
After some heated debate, delegates passed a measure that says: “NEA will publicly stand in defense of abortion and reproductive rights and encourage members to participate in activities including rallies and demonstrations, lobbying and political campaigns, educational events, and other actions to support the right to abortion, contraception, and a person’s decision about their health.”
The measure was submitted by Arlene Inouye, the secretary of United Teachers Los Angeles. When presenting her motion, she said she had been asked by other delegates to remove the word “abortion.”
“I said no,” she told delegates. “No, because the issue is abortion. It must not be watered down. ... We must not go back to the days of back-alley abortions. This is a reproductive-justice issue and movement.”
During debate, some union leaders voiced concern that passing a measure that explicitly states the union’s support of abortion would be unpalatable to some members.
“By using the word abortion, we’re alienating possible allies on this very nuanced issue,” one delegate said. “Using controversial language is not the answer.”
Ultimately, the measure passed, with 74 percent voting in favor.
3. Delegates took aim at the wave of anti-LGBTQ legislation.
Across the country, lawmakers have introduced a wave of bills that would affect ways of discussing, addressing, or interacting with LGBTQ youth in schools. The most prominent example is Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity for students in kindergarten through 3rd grade and says in later grades, teaching must be “age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate.”
Delegates approved a measure that said the NEA will “take all necessary steps” to overturn Florida’s law and any other similar ones across the country.
The union leaders also voted to approve another measure that said the NEA would assist state affiliates by writing to legislators about the harm these bills will have on LGBTQ students and members, filing amicus briefs in civil lawsuits challenging these laws where appropriate, and organizing protests and other forms of advocacy. The price tag for this work is $32,000.
Delegates committed an additional $140,625 to compiling research about the largest 25 organizations “that are actively working to diminish a student’s right to honesty in education, freedom of sexual and gender identity, and teacher autonomy.” The research, which will be provided to state affiliates, will include funding sources and the campaign strategies the groups are deploying.
“You cannot put a price tag on truth,” one delegate said during debate. “We have to know our enemies.”
4. Some of the more controversial measures didn’t pass.
Over the past few years, the NEA has tightened its security around its representative assembly and removed the proposed measures—called “new business items"—from the public portion of its website. In fact, this year Education Week was the only news outlet covering the entirety of the assembly.
A conservative think tank based in North Carolina obtained the proposed news business items and posted several of them on Twitter, generating significant outrage. But some of the more controversial measures did not pass.
For instance, one proposal widely circulated on Twitter called for the NEA to support a national policy of mandatory masking and COVID-19 vaccines in schools. That measure was soundly defeated, with 84 percent of delegates voting against it.
Another measure that went viral on Twitter would have encouraged NEA to inform state and local affiliates that they could update their contract language to be inclusive to LGBTQ families by replacing “maternity leave” with “parental leave,” and “mother” and “father” with “birthing parent” and “non-birthing parent,” respectively. That measure was never even discussed or voted on—delegates ran out of time.
New business items direct the union to do something for a year, but they aren’t a permanent statement of belief. It only takes 50 delegates to move such a measure to the floor of the representative assembly.
5. The NEA adopted measures on safe schools.
On the first day of the convention, delegates wore orange in a show of support to those fighting against gun violence. The following day, there was a mass shooting at an Independence Day parade 30 miles away from the NEA’s meeting. A Chicago pre-kindergarten teacher was among those wounded.
Against this grim backdrop—and in the wake of the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas—the union’s board of directors had proposed a new business item to coordinate a “unified response” to protect schools and communities from gun violence. The measure, which will cost nearly half a million dollars, passed nearly unanimously.
NEA will support organizing efforts across the country, continue its federal advocacy work, and “hold accountable” elected officials and candidates running for office to “make sure they are willing to put an end to gun violence on school campuses and in our communities.”
Delegates also passed a measure that requires the NEA to use the words “murderer” and “murder” (or “alleged murderer” and “alleged murder”) when referring to shootings.
The union also approved a new policy statement calling for an end to the “criminalization and policing of students"—but stopped short of urging the removal of armed officers on school campuses.
From May 2020 through June 2022, at least 50 districts serving over 1.7 million children ended their school policing programs or cut their budgets, according to an Education Week analysis. But school shootings have caused some to restart their programs and other districts to bolster them, despite limited evidence of their effectiveness in preventing such tragedies.