At the National Education Association’s upcoming annual conference, Secretary-Treasurer Lily Eskelsen intends to go onstage to announce record-high membership numbers: The union’s locals have added more than 30,000 new teachers to their rolls this year.
She calls it “the silver lining” in the No Child Left Behind Act, explaining that, as she sees it, more and more teachers are realizing the importance of becoming part of the debate over the federal law.
The same delegates who will descend on Orlando, Fla., June 30 through July 5, will also see another, now-familiar side of Ms. Eskelsen: a folk-song-singing, guitar-strumming critic of the law whose lyrics portray its requirements as ridiculous and even dangerous—so much so that she calls it a “national insanity.”
Ms. Eskelsen, 51, is the only top officer of the 2.7 million-member NEA who faces re-election this year. The fact that she will run unopposed speaks to her popularity and raises speculation that she could some day take over the helm of the nation’s largest union.
“She has the ability to be president,” said former NEA President Keith B. Geiger.
The last woman president of the NEA, an organization whose members are overwhelmingly female, was Mary Hatwood Futrell, whose term expired in 1989.
Ms. Eskelsen, who rose from a 6th grade teacher in Utah to the third-most-important elected job in the NEA, declined to talk about her future plans. Right now, she said last week, she is “very pleased” to serve as secretary-treasurer.
“What drives me is knowing that the work is important and that I can bring something to it,” she said.
Mike Antonucci, an Elk Grove, Calif.-based watchdog of teachers’ unions who publishes an online newsletter, said NEA delegates typically want a president who is “good at PR, personable, and puts forth the association’s position in an appealing way”—a description that admirers would say fits Ms. Eskelsen to a tee.
And her career path is heading the way of NEA presidents in recent history, each of whom held high office in the union before being elected to the top post.
Mr. Geiger, Bob Chase, and Reg Weaver, the current president, all served as vice president before making the top post. Ms. Futrell had served as secretary-treasurer.
Like Ms. Eskelsen, those past presidents had all headed the unions in their respective states before making it to the national-level organization. Also like her, many of the top three leaders over the past several elections have been members of the national executive committee.
Mr. Antonucci, pointing to the somewhat predictable pattern NEA presidents have followed in reaching the top, said delegates “accept it the way it is.”
Dennis Van Roekel, the current vice president, has not said whether he will run for president when Mr. Weaver’s term expires in 2008. Mr. Weaver is serving his second three-year term and cannot seek re-election.
Ms. Eskelsen could potentially run for president either in opposition to Mr. Van Roekel, or, if he became president, after he completed two terms in 2014. If she does run against Mr. Van Roekel, observers say, the odds could be stacked against her because delegates have typically chosen to elect the vice president to the president’s job.
“I am not sure she will want to risk it,” Mr. Geiger said of a presidential bid in 2008.
Speaking Her Mind
Her own experience as a teacher in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, Ms. Eskelsen said, is what makes her an effective spokeswoman. When politicians, lawyers, and real estate companies “casually tell teachers how to do their jobs,” she said, she is not afraid to tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about.
“I know the truth. Because I had a classroom with 39 6th graders, you can’t tell me that class size doesn’t matter,” she said.
Her peers see her as a hands-on leader who takes pains to connect with members. “She’s not a far-off, distant person; she’s not a person who just works in D.C.,” said Barbara E. Kerr, the president of the 335,000-member California Teachers Association.
“She’s truly passionate about children, and an excellent spokeswoman for teachers and what’s good for classrooms,” said Pat Rusk, the president of the 18,000-member Utah Education Association, who worked closely with Ms. Eskelsen when she headed the state union in the 1990s. Were she to run for president of the NEA, Ms. Rusk said, “I’ll help run her campaign.”
While Ms. Eskelsen is on a conventional path that could lead one day to the union presidency, her style is anything but conventional. At the NEA conference two years ago, she entertained delegates with a number titled “If We Have to Test Their Butts Off, There Will Be No Child’s Behind Left.”
Her style may be different, but her views are very much in tune with the union on such major issues as the NCLB law and tuition vouchers, Mr. Antonucci said. “It’s the way she says it,” he observed, “rather than what she’s saying.”
Ms. Eskelsen’s biography on the NEA Web site notes that in 1998, she ran unsuccessfully for U.S. representative from Utah, the first Hispanic chosen as the Democratic Party’s nominee for Congress from that state. She was named Utah’s teacher of the year by the state department of education in 1989.
At the union’s conference this year, Ms. Eskelsen said, delegates will take up “some major issues” with the NCLB law, which is due for reauthorization in 2007.
“We are getting all our ducks in a row,” she said, adding the officials would present a report on the act and make recommendations on “how to fix the absurdities.” The union challenged the law in court in April 2005, but the lawsuit was later dismissed by the U.S. District Court judge in the case. The union has appealed that decision.
The union will also, Ms. Eskelsen said, talk about strategic moves “in some very, very simple but profoundly important areas like salaries for teacher and support staff. … We want to put salaries front and center.”
The No Child Left Behind law, she said, has made the union’s role more important than ever. And, she said, it is not just teachers who agree with the NEA on the law’s shortcomings, but politicians from both parties as well.
“You have the Utah state legislature passing legislation overwhelmingly telling [President] Bush [to] get out of our public schools. … We are getting so much support from Republican governors who have never played well with the NEA in the past,” Ms. Eskelsen said.
A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2006 edition of Education Week as As NEA Prepares to Meet, Rising Star Seeks Re-Election