Teaching Profession

Candidates Stress Experience, Style In Union Contest

By Bess Keller — June 19, 2002 5 min read
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The next president of the nation’s largest teachers’ union will not be elected until early next month, but the winner is certain to be an African-American middle school teacher with a commitment to raising teacher salaries and scaling back penalties linked to standardized tests.

Candidates Denise Rockwell and Reg Weaver, nominated at the National Education Association’s annual meeting last July, match up in several ways. And as fits the pattern of previous races for leader of the 2.7 million-member organization, neither teacher has approached the campaign as a contest of views. Rather, each stresses experience and style.

Mr. Weaver, 62, has served as the union’s vice president for six years under outgoing President Bob Chase. For six years in the 1980s, he was the president of the 90,000-member Illinois Education Association. Earlier, he headed the NEA’s local affiliate in Harvey, Ill., south of Chicago, where he has taught science for more than 25 years.

He was elected twice to the NEA’s nine-member executive committee, serving a total of six years.

Ms. Rockwell, too, has been elected twice to that board. Her second term ended a year ago. In 1996, she was appointed to chair the union’s 35-member Emergency Commission on Urban Children.

From 1990 to 1996, Ms. Rockwell served as one of four vice presidents of United Teachers Los Angeles. The 44,000-member UTLA is the NEA’s largest local affiliate and was the first to merge with its American Federation of Teachers counterpart. In her Los Angeles post, Ms. Rockwell oversaw the local union’s relationship with its national affiliate.

Ms. Rockwell, 53, has taught for more than 25 years in the Los Angeles schools.

Eventual Merger Backed

While Mr. Weaver points to his tenure in a host of union jobs as his strongest qualification to be president, Ms. Rockwell highlights her time in the classroom.

“As vice president, I’ve been here and had the experience,” said Mr. Weaver, who has visited hundreds of schools and been an ambassador to civil rights groups. “What is it I’ve done as a vice president that says I shouldn’t be president?”

Indeed, Mr. Weaver’s two most recent predecessors as NEA vice president—Mr. Chase and, before him, Keith B. Geiger—went on to head the union. That makes Mr. Weaver the favorite, according to NEA-watchers.

On the other hand, Ms. Rockwell has garnered strong support in her home state, including an endorsement from the California Teachers Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union and the NEA’s largest state affiliate.

She hopes the delegates will deem her recent classroom experience more pertinent than the NEA’s line of succession. This year, she has taught middle school humanities and reading full time at Palms Middle School in Los Angeles.

“I have a firmer grasp of what goes on in the classroom because I’m there,” Ms. Rockwell argued.

With perhaps more to lose from taking sides on issues than from voicing general concerns, the candidates have not proposed any changes in direction as they have crisscrossed the country, wooing the more than 9,000 delegates who will cast their ballots July 3 at the NEA’s Representative Assembly in Dallas.

The yearlong campaigns are expensive. Mr. Weaver said he hoped to raise at least $100,000, while Ms. Rockwell aimed for no less than $75,000.

Ms. Rockwell has said she would throw her energies into efforts to boost teacher recruitment and retention, the failure of which threatens both the quality of education and union clout.

Mr. Weaver has said he would work to unite groups behind a school improvement agenda that is widely agreed to, including smaller class sizes, smaller schools, and well-qualified teachers.

Both candidates say they support an eventual merger of the NEA and the 1.2 million-member AFT, but both say they would concentrate for now on strengthening the existing partnership between the unions. Delegates to the NEA’s 1998 convention soundly rejected a merger agreement.

And they agree that standardized tests for students have too often been overused and abused.

Higher pay for educators remains a top priority for both. But while Mr. Weaver has said he does not support most plans that pay teachers based on “merit” or “performance,” rather than years of experience and levels of education, Ms. Rockwell has opened the door a little wider.

“There are all kinds of alternative pay plans, and it seems to me the NEA’s responsibility is to help states support locals in terms of what they can do to enhance pay at the local level,” she said.

‘Apple Pie’ Contest?

Similarly, Ms. Rockwell has said she sees “a place” for charter schools, while Mr. Weaver dismisses those largely autonomous public schools as largely a “fad.”

“Charter schools have not been meeting the needs of as many children as they’re purported to,” he argued.

The result of the election could be pivotal for the association, which has seen three relatively activist, high-profile presidents in a row. Once a figurehead in comparison with the NEA’s executive director, the president in recent years has gained in stature and influence.

With that in mind, John Grossman, the president of the Columbus Education Association in Ohio, expressed disappointment in the campaign so far.

“We are in a major battle for the future of public education,” said Mr. Grossman, a longtime union leader who has been a proponent of Mr. Chase’s “new unionism,” which stresses union commitment to educational quality. “We need substance. They’re giving us the educational equivalent of apple pie.”

But others say the candidates have measured up.

Judith A. Briganti, the president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, has pledged her support to Mr. Weaver. “I have never been in a setting, a school or a large group meeting, where people have not been totally motivated by his remarks,” she said. “People see him as an approachable leader who really cares about them.”

The president of a local affiliate in California, on the other hand, has endorsed Ms. Rockwell. “I think the credibility of the classroom is real important to members,” said Nancy J. Waltz, the president of the San Juan Teachers Association in the Sacramento area. “When she speaks, people listen; it’s amazing to watch this woman speak from the heart.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 2002 edition of Education Week as Candidates Stress Experience, Style In Union Contest

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