Teaching Profession

NEA Delegates Select Seasoned Union Veteran As Their Next President

By Bess Keller — July 10, 2002 6 min read
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Consummate teachers’ union veteran Reg Weaver overwhelmingly won election last week to the National Education Association’s highest post, defeating Los Angeles union activist Denise Rockwell for president.

Mr. Weaver, who has been the vice president of the nation’s largest teachers’ union for the past six years, succeeds his boss, Bob Chase, who will step down next month after six years as president. Mr. Weaver polled 5,549 votes to Ms. Rockwell’s 2,968, for just over 65 percent of the total votes cast by delegates to the NEA’s Representative Assembly here.

Elected to a three-year term, Mr. Weaver will earn $231,036 next year.

Though Mr. Weaver, 62, has held top posts at every level of the union’s hierarchy, starting in his home school district of Harvey, Ill., Ms. Rockwell, too, has a long history of union leadership, including six years on the organization’s nine-member executive board. Sticking with tradition, the candidates stressed their experience and passionate defense of public education, rather than differences in their views, during their campaigns for the office.

On the stump, neither pushed the “new unionism” championed by Mr. Chase, which puts the quality of education on a par with bread-and-butter union concerns such as pay. But neither disavowed the concept either. (“Candidates Stress Experience, Style in Union Contest,” June 19, 2002.)

Mr. Weaver, who taught middle school science, is known for his friendly, demonstrative style, and promised to rally educators, parents, and others behind the key features of good schools, including a safe environment and smaller class sizes. He dismissed innovations such as performance pay for teachers—which looks at teachers’ skills, tasks, or results in awarding compensation—and charter schools as beside the point of boosting public education.

“I don’t believe in succession,” said Joseph R. Straub, a delegate from the Howard County (Md.) Education Association, referring to Mr. Weaver’s ascent from vice president, the steppingstone of the last two NEA presidents. “But I believe in experience and leadership, and I believe [Mr. Weaver] is exemplary in those two qualities.”

Other Victors

The 2.7 million-member organization’s new vice president, Dennis Van Roekel of Paradise Valley, Ariz., steps into the job unopposed from his post as secretary-treasurer.

Lily Eskelsen, an executive-committee member and elementary teacher from Salt Lake City, trounced three other candidates for Mr. Van Roekel’s position: Lee Ann Prielipp of Washington state, Dan Sakota of Idaho, and Roger Sharp of Indiana.

Ms. Eskelsen’s crackling two-minute speech seemed to win over many among the 8,500 delegates attending the four-day meeting of the Representative Assembly, the NEA’s main policymaking body.

“My determination was made yesterday after I heard her speech,” said Robert A. Antonelli, an 8th grade teacher in the Vineland, N.J., school district and a delegate. “Anyone who can bring emotion in such a short time, we need them in education.”

Ms. Eskelsen ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1998.

Taking Aim at Washington

The two presidential candidates got five minutes each at the podium, capping yearlong races and early-morning visits over the past several days to state delegations.

Both used the time to outline what they view as the grave dangers facing public education from those on the political right and to lash out at the sweeping education law pushed by President Bush and passed with bipartisan support at the end of last year.

“‘No Child Left Behind’ is another empty phrase,” declared Mr. Weaver, referring to the title of the new law. He charged that “two decades of government programs to help kids” are being steadily eroded under conservatives.

Ms. Rockwell, a middle school teacher, launched her fiery speech by calling school vouchers not just a “bad idea,” but “poison for public education.” The week before the union’s gathering, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the use of publicly financed tuition vouchers at religious schools in Cleveland. (“Uncharted Territoy: Choice’s New Landscape,” this issue.)

As for the “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2001, Ms. Rockwell continued, “it’s little more than Vouchers Lite.”

Opposition to the federal law struck the right note with Adrienne Ledford, a special education teacher’s aide in the Amphitheater school district in Tucson, Ariz., and a delegate. As a result of the legislation, she has been ordered to get an associate’s degree or risk losing her job. “I’m 50 years old and work two jobs,” she said. “I can’t go back to college.”

The law, a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was a focus of this year’s NEA meeting, which included a booth to inform union members about its provisions and a host of proposals from members about how to deal with it. The first item of business was approval by the delegates to form an Elementary and Secondary Education Act Advisory Committee, which Mr. Chase will appoint.

The committee’s job is to devise strategy to mold the act’s implementation, including more money for schools. Already planned for this summer are regional meetings to discuss the law, the first of whose major provisions goes into effect this fall. (“Decoding ESEA,” this issue.)

Chase’s Farewell

In his farewell keynote address, President Chase mixed sentiment with a political call to arms. Asking all the grandparents in the graying ranks of the delegates to stand, he called his own new role as the grandfather of a 4-month-old girl “the most important role yet.” Then he took aim at vouchers and certain provisions of the ESEA, saying educators have a professional responsibility to speak out against “policies that will hurt, not heal” troubled schools.

“Because the [Supreme] Court can say that vouchers are constitutional—just as the court for 60 years said that segregated schools were constitutional—that does not make it right,” Mr. Chase said.

He went on to say that while the union “agrees passionately” with the intent of the law—to close the achievement gaps between racial and ethnic groups—it condemns the use of high-stakes tests that it contends have little or no use in pinpointing the learning problems of students.

“It is time to give children back recess, music and the arts, field trips, and all the other things that have been sacrificed on the altar of the almighty test,” Mr. Chase said to cheers.

And while the NEA applauds the law’s requirement to put a fully certified teacher in every classroom by the summer of 2006, Mr. Chase continued, it decries what it sees as the deception of failing to provide schools with money for that challenge.

“The president and Congress have no serious game plan and no new funding” to find the estimated 200,000 certified teachers needed for classrooms, the vast majority of them in urban schools serving poor children, he said.

Ending on a personal note, Mr. Chase recalled his parents—his mother, an 8th grade dropout, and his father, a laborer, and an alcoholic. “I loved them, and I am grateful to them,” he said, wiping away a tear. “But what really made a difference in my life was public education.” Then he thanked his teachers for “the gift of learning, the gift of self-worth, the gift of realizing I could do good and important things.”

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A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as NEA Delegates Select Seasoned Union Veteran As Their Next President

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