The nearly 3 million member National Education Association is facing a rocky road ahead, including a projected loss of membership and a chilly relationship with the Trump administration. Teachers’ union President Lily Eskelsen García sat down with Education Week to talk about a range of issues facing the union, including its engagement with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, the threat posed by a looming U.S. Supreme Court case, and the NEA’s new, tougher charter-school policy. Excerpts follow.
The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
You gave a speech on DeVos in which you said you won’t participate in a ‘photo op’ with her. How do you engage with the administration after that?
A lot of folks said, “How are we going to work with the [U.S.] Department of Education now?” We still have staff-to-staff contact. There’s still the civil service folks who have been there years and decades and through administrations. … We still have to guide people in the Every Student Succeeds Act and how implementation is going. The question about whether we can find some common ground with Betsy DeVos is different.
The bipartisanship we have to build right now is within the ranks of the Republican Senate and the Republicans in the House to say, “Look at what [Trump]’s doing to public school. Look at what Betsy DeVos has cut from her budget from special education, from after-school programs, from college work study.”
You posed some pointed questions to DeVos in February that she still has not answered. What happens if she does answer them?
Here’s the bottom line, and we’re not trying to be cute here. The bottom line is there is no reason to trust this woman. There is no reason to trust how they would characterize a meeting with me. I’ve seen what they’ve done with other people. Look at what they did with [James] Comey. He didn’t trust them—he took notes! … Who knows what this administration is going to say?
We don’t trust these people. We look at what they did to Michigan public schools. DeVos destroyed them on purpose to create customers, so they were joyless, underfunded, overcrowded places that people didn’t want to work in, and they didn’t want their kids in those schools. It was only to create a demand for what she calls the private charter industry.
What are you going to do to help NEA prepare for the potential loss of agency fees [charged to nonmembers who benefit from collective bargaining]?
Of course we saw this coming as soon as [Neil] Gorsuch was put on the [U.S. Supreme] Court. But we have a lot of states like my state, Utah. We have a very strong membership in Utah. And we don’t have a bargaining law or a right to bargain, we just do it.
So how do you advocate without that tool in the toolbox? There’s nothing that says [a union president] can’t have a conversation with a school board president, with the superintendent, and to lay out our case for why this is the best thing for our district.
Do you worry about loss of revenue from your 90,000 fee payers? What about other teachers who might let their membership lapse?
Those are all possibilities, and so it’s our responsibility to make sure that we are prepared and we’re going to [learn from] those states that never did have agency fees.
I remember when I first ran for the NEA Executive Committee and I’m interviewing with the Michigan folks, and they were like, “Why would you be looking at this? You don’t understand our world.” And I was able to say, I was the bargaining chair in a nonbargaining state. That’s not for cowards. We just made stuff up and did it. … Isn’t it ironic that a state like Michigan is [now] going to a state like Utah and saying, “How do you do this?”
We show up to new-teacher orientation and we make a case about the value that we have, we are the collective voice: We’re the people who go up to the governor and look that person in the eye and say, ‘Here’s what we need.’ We’re going to build coalitions with parents, civil rights groups, disability groups, you name it.
We’re going into college campuses, into those colleges of education; we’re not introducing ourselves when they first show up for work.
Help me understand the type of charter school that would meet your new criteria. What would that actually look like?
We don’t want to whitewash and say they’re all bad. The folks who say that, it’s because it’s all they see in their area. They’ve never seen anything else. It’s impossible for them to imagine [a good charter school].
In Alaska [for example], some of the NEA Alaska members said we want something on native culture, on Eskimo culture. Half the seats are filled with native speakers and half with non-native students. They have a separate room for the elders who come onto that school property every day. They do something amazing with those students. It’s music, it’s culture, it’s poetry, it’s ceremony. Those kids are saying that’s a very meaningful part of my life. And you can’t say that’s taking jobs away from the people doing native culture at [the local] high school; they’re creating something that didn’t exist.
I will tell you that is not where the growth is. It’s where we started, and then the charter school industry moved in. The venture capitalists are not supporting Fairbanks, Alaska’s charter school.
A version of this article appeared in the July 19, 2017 edition of Education Week as ‘No Reason to Trust’ DeVos, Defiant NEA President Says