Teaching Profession

Head to Head

By Jeanne Ponessa — June 19, 1996 24 min read

The two presidential candidates have crisscrossed the country for months, giving speeches, handing out campaign literature, and seeking delegates who will vote for them. They’ve raised funds, picked up endorsements, and learned about the outside-the-Beltway issues facing the voters.

But unlike Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, these candidates and their election have largely escaped the scrutiny of the national media. They aren’t confined by the demands of national political parties. And instead of bashing each other, they’ve both turned their campaign rhetoric against what they consider their real opponents: those who would threaten public education. It’s election year at the National Education Association.

When NEA President Keith B. Geiger’s term of office expires this summer, he will have served in his office for seven years, longer than any other president in the 2.2 million-member group’s history. At this year’s Representative Assembly July 2-5 in Washington, 9,000 union delegates from around the country will vote to choose Geiger’s successor. They’ll decide between two candidates who work closely with Geiger in the group’s Washington office: Robert F. Chase, the NEA vice president, and Marilyn Monahan, the union’s secretary-treasurer. Chase and Monahan have been actively campaigning for the job since last July’s Representative Assembly; they were the presumed candidates for almost a year before that.

It’s been a high-stakes race for the $178,907-per-year position. Chase estimates that his campaign will cost between $60,000 and $70,000, while Monahan puts the figure for her campaign at $70,000 to $75,000. In accordance with union rules, both have relied on private contributions. (See box, page 35.)HThe candidates are angling for a job that promises to be no picnic, either. For one thing, the union faces external attacks from entrepreneurs seeking to privatize public schools and from media reports blaming failures in public schools on lackluster teachers whose jobs are protected by union-negotiated contracts. These affronts, many union members contend, demand a leader who is not only an effective communicator but a creative coalition-builder. The NEA is also in the midst of ongoing discussions with the 900,000-member American Federation of Teachers about a merger that could reshape the future of organized teaching.

And the NEA itself is undergoing an internal transformation as an increasing number of members call for a shift away from old-style unionism toward a new emphasis on teaching, learning, and professional development. Two major reports due out later this year--one from the NEA’s National Foundation for the Improvement of Education and one from the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York--will examine professional development and lay out proposals for strengthening the profession of teaching.

“The president will have a full plate of recommendations with which to deal,” observes Arthur Wise, the president of the National Council for the Accreditation of Teacher Education, who chairs the NFIE and has worked closely with the NEA. “There will be a strong intellectual foundation for the next president to provide leadership that will take the association into the 21st century.”

The race itself is shaping up to be a close one. Both candidates have the advantage of holding a national office and have reaped the benefits of visibility and name recognition that come with it. Their jobs, for instance, require plenty of travel and appearances at local affiliates around the country.

Both Chase and Monahan are from New England states--Connecticut and New Hampshire, respectively--a factor that could divide candidate loyalty in that region and make the rest of the country a tossup.

And while Chase can point to Geiger’s smooth transition from vice president to president, Monahan can cite Geiger’s predecessor, the popular Mary Hatwood Futrell, as the model of a president who came straight from the secretary-treasurer’s office.

The fact that the two candidates work so closely together in the same building--they work in adjacent offices and even share a secretary--has also kept them from turning the campaign into the mudslinging affair that is typical of many elections. Since the two haven’t openly sparred over the issues, many members have said the election may boil down to a choice between personal styles rather than platforms.

The reality of next month’s election, conducted by secret ballot, is that it will come down to decisions made by individual delegates. That’s why, in traveling around the country over the past year, the candidates have tried to reach as many members of the diverse and expansive union as possible.

Indianapolis, April 27

Chase arrives to a friendly crowd here as the Indiana State Teachers Association gathers for its annual delegate assembly. His supporters held a meet-and-greet reception for him last night in the hotel, which they announced by hanging Chase’s campaign fliers in the hotel elevators.

On this chilly and overcast morning, more than 550 delegates have filed into a large auditorium at North Central High School wearing ISTA T-shirts and campaign buttons for local union elections.

Phyllis A. Largey, an Indiana member of the NEA’s national board of directors, takes the podium to announce the guest speaker. The NEA presidential election is this summer, she explains, and the two candidates are the NEA’s vice president and secretary-treasurer. “Both have served us well, and it will be an interesting race, to say the least,” Largey says.

Chase, who is here to represent the NEA, not to campaign formally, has been sitting onstage behind a row of ISTA officers and directors. A reserved and thoughtful man, he’s a far cry from the stereotypical image of union leader as rumpled, rabble-rousing activist. He’s not likely to be mistaken for one of the teachers in the group, either, with his neatly pressed jacket and tie.

Yet, he seems to break out of the quiet facade when he steps up to the lectern and delivers a spirited address on public education.

“How should we respond to the public’s concerns about education and its lack of confidence in our schools?” he asks. “We could go off alone and sit back and give ourselves a big sulk.” He pauses before reciting a litany of teachers’ complaints: They work long hours, buy their own supplies, dedicate themselves for little or no recognition. “The trouble, of course, is that while the big sulk may bring temporary relief, it won’t last,” he continues. “Besides, we can’t lead when we’re sulking--and lead we must.”

He ends on a grand, presidential-sounding note: “Public education is our torch. We take it gladly and proudly, holding it aloft so that all citizens can bask in its glow.” The applause is thunderous, and Chase deserves it: He’s spent a fair amount of time preparing, rehearsing, and modifying this speech. The care he took in delivering what was essentially another pep talk to the faithful reflects the qualities his supporters find in him--thoughtfulness on the issues coupled with the ability to defend the profession with gusto.

Chase, however, won’t stay in the spotlight for long. When he’s finished acknowledging the applause, he takes a low-profile seat in the back of the auditorium with a guest. A few delegates who recognize him stop by to offer him their thanks and support as they leave the assembly.

David Young, the president of the 42,000-member ISTA, explains later that the union hasn’t backed a candidate; Chase was invited simply because Geiger was not available. Still, Young is a Chase supporter. “Bob has a lot of integrity that he brings to the position, and he has had the opportunity to prove his ability to handle difficult tasks,” he says. “I think he’d be a strong advocate for us.”

An advocate is exactly what many Indiana teachers are looking for. Here in Indianapolis, where the school district and local officials are at loggerheads with the union over a school-improvement plan that severely curtails union power, union members are listening closely to the advocacy styles of the two candidates.

Joyce Macke, the president of the 2,141-member Indianapolis Education Association, won’t say publicly which candidate she’s supporting. But she does say that Indianapolis delegates are looking to the candidates for cues on how they will help teachers through their struggles. “Our local will probably listen to their speeches and think, ‘What are they going to do for us?’” she says.

Chase acknowledges that the “vast majority” of things that happen in the union are in the state and local arenas. “So as a national organization, we have to be about assisting our affiliates at a more direct level,” he says.

One thing the union can do in responding to outside attacks, he adds, is to communicate the positive things he sees coming from NEA members. “What we should be about is creating our own agenda and letting people know what we’re doing,” he says. “Public school employees have never been very good about tooting our own horns. It’s not part of our nature, but it has to change.”

Chase also likes to give the “cocktail party” example of how teachers can improve communications strategy: A group of teachers are talking at lunch time and agree that something needs to change in the schools. But when one of the teachers hears an outsider complaining about the same problem at a cocktail party the next day, the teacher gets defensive. “Sometimes, because we get attacked so much, our defenses automatically come up even though they shouldn’t,” he says. “What we have to say is, ‘We were just talking about that, how can we improve that?’ or ‘Let’s work together on that.’”

The ISTA, which will bring roughly 240 delegates to the convention next month, may or may not endorse a candidate in Washington. “In all fairness,” Young points out, “by the time people get to the position where they’re serious candidates--whether it’s Bob or Marilyn--we’ll be well-served.”

Las Vegas, May 18

Monahan has made a similar journey to the Nevada State Education Association’s delegate assembly here, although the setting couldn’t be more different from Indianapolis. In a sunny hotel conference room, 218 delegates from the 18,000-member NSEA can watch the desert wind blow through the palm trees outside while they wait to hear Monahan give her address.

Support for the two candidates is clearly split in Nevada: An entire row of delegates sits in the middle of the room sporting Chase campaign badges. But Elaine Lancaster, the president of the NSEA who stands at the podium, is a Monahan supporter. She introduces Monahan, who is making this trip as an official NEA function, without making any references to the election.

Monahan’s speech this morning is primarily a tribute to public education. It’s similar to Chase’s speech in Indiana, except she uses the advantage of a smaller audience to interact more with the participants.

The public, she tells them, thinks NEA members are lazy, ineffective teachers who care first and foremost about salary increases. “I thought I’d take a little informal poll,” she adds. “How many of you went into public education for the money?” Scanning the room for upraised hands (and laughing along with the few who raised their hands in jest), she continues, “How many of you did it so you can have leisurely lunch hours or more free evenings?” More teachers chuckle and murmur at this one. “How many of you went into public education because you don’t care about children?” Seeing no hands, she adds, “Now, where’s the media when you need them?”

In the latter part of her speech, Monahan addresses the question of whether the state’s secretary-treasurer or vice president should head the budget committee, a contentious state issue Nevada officers have asked her to address. It doesn’t have much to do with the larger issues facing the NEA or with the campaign. But her remarks confirm what many of her supporters say: She’s able to make teachers in the trenches feel she has a personal connection with them and their issues. It also fits in with a theme she’s trying to communicate--that she can relate to state issues better than Chase because it’s only been six years since she was president of NEA-New Hampshire, whereas Chase has held national office since 1981. And it’s clear that Monahan will need to make as many connections as she can in a state like this where her opponent appears to have a strong following.

“Marilyn is a very aggressive, outspoken advocate for children,” Lancaster remarks later. But she points out that support for the two candidates is divided in the state. One group that favors Chase is the Educational Support Employees Association, a union for noninstructional staff members that is affiliated with the NSEA. It’s a group Chase has worked closely with, and today, most of the participants wearing Chase campaign paraphernalia are ESEA delegates. Pat Bedunnah, the ESEA president, confirms their support. “He really made an effort for us,” she says. “We feel like we know him and trust him.”

Several ESEA delegates also say they support Chase even though they won’t be voting at the Representative Assembly next month. Candice Young is one of them. She says she stands behind Chase because of his support for both the ESEA and another group she belongs to: the NEA’s gay-and-lesbian caucus. “He supports our issues and what we want to see happen,” says Young. Although she does not offer specific examples of issues, she adds, “He’s out there for everybody.”

For her part, Monahan says that the key to understanding a specific group’s concerns is communication and dialogue with those groups. And in her campaign, she’s stressing her talent for motivating and unifying people. “I think I have an ability that the voters will see, to be effective, to be dynamic, to be a leader,” she says. “You have to have an ability to enter the public arena even when it’s uncomfortable.”

That sentiment is clear even when Monahan, who’s not shy about letting people know she’s there, enters a room. With her hearty voice and firm handshake, she’s almost aggressive about greeting teachers, even the ones who haven’t quite figured out who she is.

Monahan, whose campaign materials include a site on the Internet’s World Wide Web, adds that she thinks the NEA should move out into the public arena and work vigorously to retain community support for public schools. “There’s a great challenge for the next president to refocus on teaching and learning while maintaining an advocacy role,” Monahan says.

In the back of the conference room, as the meeting draws to a close, she mingles and chats with delegates. One participant who shakes her hand is Doug Bache, a 6th-grade teacher who is also a legislator in the Nevada Assembly. He’s known both candidates for a long time--Geiger was even his high school math teacher in Michigan in the 1960s--and he won’t say publicly whom he supports. But he does offer that the election is probably going to be “the most hotly contested” in years. “There are still a number of delegates to the national convention who are not committed,” Bache says of Nevada’s delegation.

Although far from the largest, the delegation still amounts to a fair number of votes: The NSEA has 18,000 members and will bring 130 to the Washington convention.

Monahan realizes the importance of these numbers. She shied away from handing out “Marilyn Monahan” buttons before the speech, but now that she’s done and has circulated among the crowd, she decides to bring out her own campaign materials.

A reading of Chase’s and Monahan’s issue papers may lead a delegate to believe the two support virtually the same things. In a sense, they do: The NEA’s focus on advocacy for public education has shaped most of what the candidates are saying on the campaign trail, and most of what local members say they want from the national organization.

Still, in an NEA questionnaire that candidates had to complete, Chase and Monahan have left some clues about potential differences. When asked how the NEA should address school reform and restructuring, for example, Monahan calls for the union’s National Center for Innovation, NFIE, and Center for Teaching and Learning to spearhead reform efforts. Chase, on the other hand, says the union needs “to change organizationally,” to make such efforts work. He’s calling on the NEA to “decentralize so that our members are empowered organizationally and professionally.”

The candidates also have key differences in their experiences. Chase’s supporters point to his proximity to the presidency while serving as vice president, for example, and to his having served longer in a national office. Monahan’s supporters, on the other hand, claim she has an advantage in having been a state president more recently and in being a woman in this predominantly female organization.

It’s the weight of the supporters’ endorsements, in fact, that could be a key factor in the election. Although many of the members interviewed for this article say that the NEA would be well-served by either candidate, most seem to have chosen one. Chase has racked up an impressive array of support from union leaders around the country and has won the plum endorsement of Futrell, the former president. Monahan, although she has drummed up a fair amount of support, says she is relying on backing from individuals rather than group endorsements.

To many Monahan supporters, then, her style and ability to communicate will be the crucial factor in her favor when delegates meet the candidates next month. Gene Neely, the vice president of the 28,000-member Kansas NEA, says that since both candidates are “tops” in terms of substance, voters will choose a candidate based on his or her personality.

Neely remembers the first time he ever saw Monahan. It was at the 1986 Representative Assembly, when Monahan paid tribute to Christa McAuliffe, the New Hampshire teacher and astronaut who had been killed in the Challenger space-shuttle explosion earlier that year. It was, he recalls, a “phenomenal” speech. “For her to be able to walk into a room of that size with 10,000 people and to make you feel that Christa McAuliffe was someone you had known, it was impressive,” he says. “I’ve not seen anything in 10 years since to think that anything that day was an aberration.”

Rob Jones, the president of the 55,000-member Virginia Education Association, agrees. “I don’t wake up in the middle of the night saying, ‘If Bob Chase wins, the world’s going to end,’” he says. “But from my perspective, Marilyn brings greater passion to the issues--she’s got that fire in the belly--whereas Bob might tend to overintellectualize.”

Jones says the next NEA president should have the ability to communicate in a way that appeals to the general public. “I say, ‘Which one would I like to have on the ‘Today’ show representing me?’”

Chase supporters, of course, believe their candidate has plenty of attributes that would make for a strong president. Claudia Douglas, the president of the 11,000-member NEA-Alaska, acknowledges that Chase is “not a real flamboyant person.” But his manner is still effective, she says. “He has a real quiet strength about him and a conviction about the principles that he really cares about.” That ability to communicate important issues is critical, Douglas says, especially for teachers who are far away and rely heavily on NEA leaders to get their message across in Washington.

To other Chase supporters, the election won’t--and shouldn’t--be decided on personality at all. John Grossman, the president of the 5,000-member Columbus Education Association in Ohio, says he supports Chase because of his strong commitment to reform efforts like the ones his union has been involved with. For example, Grossman says the NEA had “frowned on and shunned” Columbus’ peer-assistance program, under which veteran teachers evaluate the performance of colleagues. “Now, it’s very much embraced, and Bob’s been involved with that,” he says. “Now, it’s moving forward full-steam.”

Another Chase backer is Bruce Colwell, the president of the Seattle Education Association. Like Grossman, Colwell is part of the Teachers Union Reform Network--a group of 21 NEA and AFT locals working to craft a new vision for teacher unionism. “For some people, the issue is going to come down to personalities, and that’s not necessarily going to do the association a good service,” says Colwell, whose local numbers 4,500 members. He supports Chase for his ability to deal with complicated issues, his “eloquence” in public speaking, and what he calls Chase’s right to the presidential office. “My personal belief is that a person who has served as a vice president with distinction also deserves the opportunity to show what he can do as president,” he says. “We can’t lose in one sense, but Bob has earned the right to be president.”

Regardless of how local leaders feel, many point out that the delegates themselves, many of whom don’t know much about Chase or Monahan, will wait until they hear the candidates speak at the Representative Assembly before they choose.

“The real action will come when we come to the Representative Assembly,” says Tom Ruiz, a San Francisco educator and Chase supporter who will be a delegate to the convention. Because the powerful 234,000-member California Teachers Association did not endorse a candidate this year--Chase just missed winning the required percentage of votes to earn that endorsement--many delegates from the Golden State are seen as up for grabs. Still, Ruiz cautions that while a state endorsement is an “indicator” of support, delegates are not bound to vote for a given candidate.

Linda Helf, the secretary-treasurer of the 84,000-member Wisconsin Education Association Council and a Monahan supporter, agrees that delegates’ individuality is an important factor. “There’s an overall feeling on the part of delegates that they want to make up their own minds,” she says. “I think it points to the kind of organization the NEA is--it’s not like people just elect someone--people actually read the campaign materials, and we all take the opportunity to talk to them at meetings.”

Delegates to the Representative Assembly will also be responsible for electing a new vice president to fill Chase’s slot. They’ll choose between Reg Weaver, a former member of NEA’s executive committee from Illinois, and Susie C. Jablinske, a current executive committee member from Maryland. There won’t be an election immediately for Monahan’s slot; if she doesn’t win the presidential election, she’ll return to the secretary-treasurer’s job to fill out one more year of her term.

As the thoughts of NEA members turn to electing new officers, another matter to consider is the record of the outgoing president. For Keith Geiger’s actions over the past seven years have both shaped the organization and charted its future. (See story, Page 6.)

Many members credit Geiger with sharpening the organization’s focus on public education and with moving the union toward a new emphasis on professionalism. Being remembered for that accomplishment may seem ironic, for when Geiger first ran for president in 1989, his supporters touted him for his collective-bargaining experience.

Still, some members say that only a leader with strong union experience would have been able to help lead the organization toward that new professional focus. Neely, the Kansas union vice president, says it was in Geiger’s term that the union finally began to strike a balance between traditional union activities and professional ones. “Maybe we had to have a unionist in office to make us more comfortable in having a focus on teaching and learning,” he muses.

Geiger’s union background also played a critical role in getting merger talks with the AFT off the ground, says Indiana’s Young. “He’s dealt with some very difficult issues in the organization with a great deal of tact and diplomacy.”

Educators outside the union will likely remember Geiger for making strides to link the union with other professional organizations. Wise says that Geiger’s efforts to work with groups like NCATE, the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future, and the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards “continued the march toward a more balanced role for the NEA.” Wise believes these groups will transform the teaching profession, but only if they have the strong support of the nation’s teachers. “He has represented the nation’s teachers well in these settings,” Wise says of Geiger, adding that the union leader has also “understood what the impact of these entities will be and can be on the profession.”

And, as supporters for the two candidates have already demonstrated, it’s not the policies alone that make a valued leader. David Lebow, a member of the California Teachers Association’s board of directors, says that Geiger brought with him a “strong union vision” and a mastery of such complicated matters as maintaining parliamentary order at a Representative Assembly. But the incident Lebow remembers best is a personal encounter with Geiger. When one of Lebow’s colleagues on the board was leaving, he asked the union chief to send her some memento. Geiger’s response was, “Better yet, I’ll come out there,” Lebow says. The surprise visit delighted the board member. “He has an almost impish sense of humor,” Lebow says of the outgoing president.

Members generally agree that Geiger has made valuable contributions to the organization. They also agree that the next president must be equally effective in order to lead the diverse group and maintain its relevance in the education-policy arena.

“Our challenge right now--it will be the challenge of the NEA--will be to keep professional issues on the forefront and not to push union issues into background,” says Neely.

Seattle’s Colwell adds that the challenge is up to the entire organization, not just the president. In the NEA, he says, the president proposes while the board of directors and the delegates dispose. “OurNo. 1 goal is the preservation of public education,” he says. “That’s whether the next president is going to be Bob or Marilyn.”

The belief that both candidates could be successful presidents seems to be a common one. But that’s not to say that this campaign and the reflection it demands have been a waste of time for the union. “I think it’s wonderful that these races are not uncontested even though they cost a lot of money and a lot of time,” Lebow says. “It really causes a renewal of purpose--I think it’s wonderful for the organization.”

Playing by the Rules

Here are the rules that govern election campaigns for officers of the National Education Association.

  • Each candidate must file for candidacy with the union’s executive director. Distribution and display of the candidate’s campaign literature is restricted to the year of the nominee’s candidacy.
  • Each candidate may submit by April 1 of the election year a photograph and statement, which the NEA will include in a publication mailed to all active union members.
  • Each candidate may design by May 1 a brochure, no larger than 8-1 / 2 by 11 inches; the NEA will pay the costs of printing and mailing the brochure to all delegates to the union’s Representative Assembly.
  • All campaign activities must be financed by private donations. No portion of dues money may be used for a candidate’s campaign expenses.
  • Candidates must file a preliminary report of campaign revenues and expenses with the committee on constitution, bylaws, and rules before the opening of nominations at the annual Representative Assembly.
  • Nominations are made from the floor of the Representative Assembly by a voting delegate. When all nominations are made, each presidential candidate has five minutes to address the assembled delegates.
  • Elections are held on the second day of the Representative Assembly; this year, the election will be July 3. Polls will be open from 8:30 a.m. until noon. Runoff elections will be held if necessary until one candidate attains a simple majority of the votes.

Source: National Education Association Standing Rules.

Curricula Vitae

*Robert F. Chase

Age: 53

Current position: Vice president, NEA, 1989-present

Previous experience:

NEA executive committee, 1984-89
NEA board of directors, 1981-84
President, Connecticut Education Association, 1980-81
Teacher, Danbury, Conn., 1965-80

Three major issues he believes the next president will face:

  • Ensuring the survival of public education.
  • Continuing dialogue on merger with the American Federation of Teachers.
  • Assisting members with professional growth and development.

*Marilyn Monahan

Age: 48

Current position: Secretary-treasurer, NEA, 1990-present

Previous experience:

President, NEA New Hampshire, 1983-90
Teacher, Goffstown, N.H., 1972-83
Teacher, Alton, N.H., 1970-72

Three major issues she believes the next president will face:

  • Ensuring the survival of public education.
  • Defending against attacks from the far right.
  • Refocusing the union on teaching and learning.
Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the June 19, 1996 edition of Education Week as Head to Head


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