Teaching Profession Q&A

NEA’s Lily Eskelsen García Talks Racial Justice, COVID Layoffs, and Leaving Office

By Madeline Will — July 01, 2020 14 min read
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Lily Eskelsen García, a former Utah Teacher of the Year who got her start in schools as a lunch lady, will soon step down as president of the National Education Association.

Eskelsen García, age 65, has been at the helm of the nation’s largest labor union for six years now—during which she has overseen the appointment of an education secretary who has frequently clashed with teachers’ unions, a historic wave of teacher activism, a U.S. Supreme Court blow to unions, and now a global pandemic that has changed how schools operate.

When she first took office in 2014, her priority was getting rid of the high stakes attached to standardized test scores, including their use in teacher evaluations. In 2015, Congress passed a new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, that gave states testing flexibility and reduced the emphasis of test scores on teacher evaluations.

Eskelsen García then turned her focus to sparring with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos over the administration’s push for more school choice. In her characteristic blunt manner, Eskelsen García has accused DeVos of trying to “destroy” public schools, and has tried to block the administration’s budget proposals that funded school choice initiatives.

She also led the union through the immediate aftermath of the 2018 Supreme Court decision in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31, which said teachers’ unions cannot collect fees for collective bargaining from workers who decline to join the union. The decision caused the loss of nearly 90,000 fee-payers and made it easier for teachers to leave the union. However, the steep membership losses that were initially projected have not yet materialized.

“It’s all about talking to new folks and old folks about what you have to offer,” Eskelsen García said. “You don’t take it for granted. You have to inspire them to want to belong to you.”

Meanwhile, teachers have gained public support through the Red for Ed movement, in which teachers across the country staged walkouts and demonstrations to call for higher pay and more school funding. Teachers in about a dozen states were supposed to get a pay raise this year, at least until the pandemic’s impact on the economy jeopardized those plans.

The NEA constitution prohibits Eskelsen García from seeking a third term, so on July 2 and 3, she will perform one of her last duties as president and lead the Representative Assembly, which she has attended in some capacity for more than 30 years. The annual meeting—which is mostly closed to press for the first time this year—will be virtual and scaled down from previous years. Delegates will hear from Joe Biden, vote to endorse him in the general election, approve the union’s budget, and elect new NEA officers, including a new president.

The election is between NEA Vice President Becky Pringle, special education teacher Mark Airgood, and 8th grade teacher Mark Norberg. Since the votes will be cast via mail, the new NEA president will not be announced until August, but Pringle is expected to win.

Education Week called Eskelsen García to discuss her tenure as president, how the movement for racial equity is showing up in schools, and her hopes for the teaching profession, post-pandemic. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve had a very eventful two terms as NEA president. How do you think the teaching profession has changed over the past six years?

When I became president six years ago, which feels like 600 years ago, ... I had the opportunity to sit and brainstorm with some pretty incredible people. And when they said, “What’s your priority going to be?” I said, “We have to get rid of No Child Left Behind.” And folks shook their heads and went, “Well, yeah, we’ve got a long legislative agenda here, and that’s certainly on it.” I went, “No, no, no, you don’t understand why that comes up for me. ... It is corrupting what it means to teach. It is corrupting our profession.”

It was so much more than a law. It was the epitome of everything that people who didn’t know what they were talking about were doing to public education. [When people ask me what my top accomplishments are, it’s] standing behind Barack Obama, watching him sign a piece of paper that meant the end of No Child Left Untested. ... That was more than a change in the law. That was the crack in the dam that made everybody question what all these so-called non-education experts were saying, that all you have to do is run public schools like a factory.

Now, we don’t talk about standardizing, we talk about humanizing. We talk about looking at that whole blessed child—mind, body, and character—and it has brought us to this place where today we are watching racial justice marches in the street. And we have prepared the ground for talking about the whole child, and talking about why Black lives matter, and why Black student lives have not mattered in too many cases in schools.

If anything, in six years, what I’m most proud of is we’re no longer looking for easy solutions and one-size-fits-all. When you talk about that child and that child’s needs, you have to look at it all.

[W]e made a very strong statement in support of Black Lives Matter in this last tragedy—I think 10 to 15 years ago, when you talked about race, when you talked about LGBTQ [issues], when you talked about justice issues, whoever was [NEA] president would get a phone call [from an affiliate] saying, “Oh, please don’t do that. Our members don’t like that. That’s not really what we do, why do we have to take a position on that?” Now, I didn’t get one of those calls. In fact, what I got was dozens of our affiliates sharing with me the statement they made in support of Black Lives Matter.

So we have had an incredible transformation, looking not only at the whole child and the business we’re in of nurturing the whole child. We’re now saying, “That child’s world is our business. Whether or not that child’s parent is facing discrimination ... is our business.” And I’m so proud of that.

Your election marked the first time in the NEA’s history that three women of color filled the top leadership positions [president, vice president, and secretary-treasurer]. And the next NEA president could be a Black woman. At a time when schools are taking part in the national reckoning on race, can you talk about what it means to have such a diverse leadership team representing a mostly white profession?

It’s the first time we’ve had three women [in the leadership team]. We’ve never had three women, we’ve never had three people of color. Now, we have two African Americans, and I’m Latina. I think it makes it so that even when we have members or affiliate leaders saying, “Our core business is really advocating for our members and negotiating contracts and your sick leave and your health care and protecting pensions,” you have Becky and Princess [Moss] and me saying, “Here’s why we care about DACA. Here’s why we care about the fact that we were able to talk about this.”

We looked at our members who were losing their lives because of COVID, and overwhelmingly they are African Americans who worked in the support of the school—they were the lunch ladies, the custodians. They were people who were not particularly well-paid. They were paraprofessionals who didn’t have health-care benefits, and they were our members. So when we sit there and we’re actually the messenger and the message—here’s the story of our lives—nobody’s going to argue with us, even if they want to. They’re not going to question the lives we’ve led.

The fact that it took my husband six years to get his green card. The fact that my mother decided when I was a kid not to teach her children Spanish because “people don’t like hearing Spanish, Lily. They won’t like you.” The lives we lead and have led are part of the message. When we go out to a press conference or to talk to members, we talk about, “Here’s why this is important to me, and how it impacted my family.” I have a gay son. When someone says, “Let’s not talk about the gays,” [I say], “Let me tell you about how that impacted him when he was in high school.”

We have expanded internally and externally what it means to say all students will be prepared for lives they deserve to live. All our members will be respected and have a chance at succeeding in their professions. You have to talk about difficult issues like social and racial justice. You have to talk about why women’s leadership is still something that’s not the reality in much of our country, and in a lot of places, our own affiliates, when you see men being elected and women struggling to be seen as leaders. So yes, we’re going to develop leadership training, we’re going to budget for it, we’re going to invest in it until it’s a reality.

I love being part of a historic team and seeing the kind of gains we’re making. When you look at Janus, it was supposed to be a nail in our coffin. And who was president at the NEA at a time when that happened? A woman from Utah. And it didn’t destroy my union.

The NEA’s proposed budget shows that the NEA is projecting to lose more than 100,000 members over the next year. Does that concern you?

It’s not because of Janus. It’s because of this pandemic. Here is what is happening—you have to prepare for politicians being stupid. ... Right now, school board members are meeting on some Zoom call—it’s a five-alarm fire. If you are funded by the income tax, and people are being laid off of their jobs, businesses are closing, people aren’t being hired. Your funding source just fell off a cliff. And simultaneously, we are trying to be very creative about how you could possibly open schools in the fall. ... Everything we’re coming up with, we’re going to have to ask for more. We may not be able to make payroll. We’re going to have to lay people off if [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell doesn’t get off his seat—because he’s sitting on the HEROES Act that the House sent him that would have sent emergency funds to every school district so they didn’t have to lay people off.

We have to plan for COVID layoffs, and that’s where that’s coming from. ... Our push right now is to get millions of people to call Mitch McConnell [and] senators. We’re going to reflect the worst-case scenario in our budget, but we are doing a full-court press to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Is there anything that you wanted to get done as president that you were unable to do? Do you have any regrets?

The work that is going to be with us forever, at least in my lifetime, is really going to be having people focus on trying to fix public schools. They’ll say, “Here’s a good public school, here’s a not-good public school.” I could never get enough people to see what I see. As people are saying, “Well, let’s try to get equal test scores"—[buzzer sound] wrong answer! Or, “Let’s make it more competitive to be a teacher, let’s make it harder to be a teacher, let’s make it easier to be a teacher, let’s do it online.” Everybody kept saying, “There are some schools that have so little, how are we going to get them the best teachers?”

And I would scream. I have been actually known to scream and grab someone’s face and say, “Listen to how easy it is. Go into the best public school in your state, ... and just take a quick inventory.” Because the most affluent parents in your state know exactly what their kids need to have an edge to get into the best universities to have the best chance to succeed.

That is what every child needs and should have. ... I guarantee you white communities will be our standard for every school. ... [People would say], “We could never afford to do that.” And that’s when I screamed and I said, “We did afford it—for those kids.” That is the foundation of our education system. It was designed to advantage certain communities, white affluent communities. It was designed to disadvantage, at worst, or to simply neglect, at best, poorer Black and brown communities. That is job one if we want to transform this system. Every school should look like our best public school, or we have not arrived. And we have not arrived.

Do you think law enforcement officers should be in school buildings?

I have great misgivings about that, and I am highly supportive of local school districts and school boards and our own associations across the country who are now doing a very deep analysis as to if that was ever a good idea.

I know that I have talked to friends whose kids are in white upper class or upper middle class neighborhoods. They are so grateful to have a police officer in their school. They’re saying don’t take the police officer away because that person is there to to save my child from an active shooter. If you go into a Black community that has had a very different experience with police officers in that community, ... a police officer in the school is more likely to be seen as the school disciplinarian. Now that’s a very different role than if an active shooter comes, he’s going to protect you. This person is [there] to discipline the students. ... Breaking a school rule can become criminalized, and it starts the school-to-prison pipeline.

I think it is incumbent on every single school district to do a deep analysis of our Black and brown children being disproportionately disciplined. And is that discipline appropriate, or is it being criminalized when it should have been an hour [of] after-school detention? I have grave concerns about armed police officers in schools. And I absolutely support people who say, “We are going to rethink if that was the best use of our pitiful resources.”

What do you think is next for the teaching profession? Their jobs will look a lot different this fall.

They will, but here is what I have always wanted for my profession. I started teaching in 1980. I didn’t have a politician looking over my shoulder, saying, “Here’s the book you have to use. Here’s how many minutes of reading I want you to have for your 6th graders. No, you can’t have a science fair, that’s not going to get our test scores up two points.” I was the queen of everything. I was all powerful. My students knew it. And in the best way, they were part of what our lessons were—I was very project-based. ... I did all of those things because I decided my kids would love learning if I did those things.

My hope for the teaching profession is that people will recognize us for the creative, important, vital leaders of communities, and get out of our way and let us do our jobs in ways that bring teaching and learning to life. ... I want them to let us love our students in ways that make those kids sit up and believe in themselves and work harder than they ever thought they could work. That’s what I see happening, and it’s all part of the Red for Ed movement.

Finally, I am seeing a movement of teachers saying, “I will be respected. And you will do right by my kids.” And that is what is happening in red states and blue states and Republican states and Democratic states. And I got to see that. I got to be there and march in those parades. And that made me as proud of my profession as I have ever been in my life.

What’s next for you? What are your plans?

I’m cleaning out my office, and I’m taking plants off the wall, and I’m looking at newspapers with headlines, some of which we talked about. And I’m doing it with a smile on my face. You said, “Do you have any regrets?” No, I don’t. I have a lot of mistakes I made. That’s different. Oh, to have been here at such a historic time, to believe that the next president of the NEA will be a game-changer—and I got to do something about helping Becky Pringle be ready to take this on. [Editor’s note: A spokeswoman for Eskelsen García clarified that she was speaking in support of Pringle as an NEA member, not in her capacity as NEA president.]

She has an election to win. But why do I support her in that election? Because she asks the right questions. She is smart and passionate. She does not suffer fools gladly. Get out of this woman’s way, because she’s going to get something done. She will be the kind of person that grabs that baton and takes off in a cloud of dust, and I got to feel like I helped her prepare for that. So I’ll ride off into the sunset. No, no definite plans at all. But I’ll find another adventure. I’m project-based, I’ll find a project for myself.

Do you see yourself staying in the education world?

It’s my life, it’s my love. I’m a power freak, I am a control freak, and I believe that the most powerful people on the planet are educators. Christa McAuliffe [the teacher who was killed in the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster] wasn’t kidding [when she said], “I touch the future, I teach.” It’s what we do. We do that for a living! We get paid for changing the world. There’s no better work than that.

Image: National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García speaks at a news conference on Nov. 1, 2017. —Andrew Harnik/AP

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.