Teaching Profession

Union Members to Discuss Critical Race Theory, School Police at 100th NEA Assembly

By Madeline Will — June 29, 2021 8 min read
Educators and union leaders gathered in Minneapolis in 2018 for the National Education Association’s representative assembly.
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Thousands of educators will dive into the national debate on what should be taught in history class this week as the nation’s largest teachers’ union holds its annual gathering.

The National Education Association will host its 100th Representative Assembly to determine its policy and initiatives for the next fiscal year. The annual convention is the world’s largest democratic deliberative body—nearly 8,000 delegates will debate and vote on where to direct the NEA’s money and attention.

For the second year, the convention will be fully virtual due to the pandemic. But unlike last year, which had a bare-bones agenda, the union’s delegates will conduct regular business, including voting on new business items, which are delegate-proposed directives for the union to pursue for one year.

In a break from a nearly 40-year tradition, however, the NEA has closed much of its representative assembly to the press. An NEA spokesman said the decision to restrict access was made due to security concerns with the virtual platform that will be used for voting, and that the 2022 representative assembly would once again be open to the press.

The representative assembly will take place from June 30 to July 3. Here’s what to expect:

1. There will be a lot of discussion about critical race theory in the classroom.

Several of the proposed new business items ask the NEA to oppose efforts to regulate what students learn about the history of race in America and to support the teachers who are doing anti-racist work. Half of states have taken steps to restrict teaching critical race theory—which is an academic framework that says racism is embedded in legal systems and policies and is not just the product of individual bias or prejudice—or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. Nine states have enacted these bans, according to an Education Week analysis.

Kumar Rashad, an NEA delegate from Louisville, Ky., introduced a new business item that calls on the union to publicly express its “support for the accurate and honest teaching of social studies topics, including truthful and age-appropriate accountings of unpleasant aspects of American history, such as slavery and the oppression and discrimination of Indigenous, Black, brown, and other peoples of color, as well as the continued impact this history has on our current society.”

The measure also says that the NEA should publicly say it’s appropriate for curriculum to be informed by critical race theory. Rashad said he feels like so far, the union has only been “loosely associated” with the battle over how to teach the racist aspects of United States history.

“The NEA has to take that explicit stance, because then that protects those of us who are doing the real work in the field,” said Rashad, who teaches a course on developing Black historical consciousness at an alternative high school. “I want to know that my union has my back when I’m doing nothing but spreading the truth, which is empowering a group of people to be independent—which is our ultimate goal of education.”

NEA President Becky Pringle told CBS News last week that educators are “doing a disservice” to students by not teaching them about systemic racism. In an essay for USA Today, Pringle also wrote that the efforts to restrict discussions of racism in the classroom were “senseless fearmongering,” and that teachers must “present to students the good, bad, and ugly of our past so that they can build a better, brighter future.”

The NEA has to stand behind its members who are doing anti-racist work in schools, said Stephen Siegel, a delegate and a high school special education teacher in the Reynolds school district near Portland, Ore. He introduced a new business item that would have the NEA research the organizations “attacking educators doing anti-racist work” and then put together a list of resources and recommendations for school districts and individual educators to use if they find themselves under the spotlight.

Earlier this year, the national grassroots group Parents Defending Education, which is critical of anti-racism efforts in schools, publicized a recording of a professional development session on anti-bias and anti-racism that was held by educators at the Beaverton school district in Oregon. During the training, a teacher said, “If you’re not evolving into an anti-racist educator, you’re making yourself obsolete in this field of profession. … If you’re going to come with those old views of colonialism, it’s going to lead to being fired, because you’re going to be doing damage to our children—trauma.”

Parents Defending Education criticized the training as “shaming” teachers “into accepting ideas rooted in the controversial ideology of critical race theory.” The story was then picked up by conservative news outlets, like Fox News and the Daily Caller.

“One of the things that [the experience] highlighted for me … is that our school districts didn’t seem particularly prepared for the kinds of attacks that were coming from these right-wing media, and also our unions seemed [caught] a little off-guard—not quite sure how to best respond,” Siegel said. “These attacks are going to keep happening.”

2. Delegates will vote on a nearly $371 million budget that anticipates $13 million in new revenue.

Last year, the NEA had projected a 125,000-member loss due to anticipated layoffs stemming from COVID-19 budget shortfalls. But that large of a loss did not materialize. Many districts were able to rehire teachers who had been laid off last spring, and teachers have not yet left the profession en masse, despite survey results that say they’re thinking of quitting.

The NEA is now budgeting for 2.34 million full-time equivalent members, up from its projected 2.29 million members last year. However, this year’s projected membership is still down from the 2019-20 tally of 2.42 million. (This membership count includes teachers, education support professionals, retirees, and community allies.) The NEA is proposing a $2 dues increase for teachers, in which case they would pay $202 for the year.

Here are some of the key areas where the membership dues will go in the coming year:

  • $5.8 million to increase member capacity as leaders and activists, which includes recruiting and training educators to run for local office and school boards;
  • $7.5 million to create and provide training, resources, and programming for members on racial and social justice and how to implement those practices in the classroom;
  • $36.2 million to “protect and defend” against legal attacks directed at the union and to support the nomination of pro-labor judges;
  • $6.9 million to recruit more new and early-career teachers to join the union; and
  • $32.9 million to elect union-friendly candidates, engage members ahead of the 2022 midterms, and “develop and utilize strategic research to shape debate in states about education funding, taxes, and revenue.”

The president, vice president, and secretary-treasurer will also each get a 3.1 percent raise. Pringle will make $320,783 this fiscal year.

3. Delegates will discuss the role of police in schools.

The NEA board of directors—the union’s top decision-making body—has introduced a new business item that would establish a task force to explore the role of law enforcement in education. The task force would consult with leaders of police-free school movements to provide recommendations to amend the union’s existing policies and language around school discipline. The task force would also collect data on school discipline and compare “the impact of on-site or community-based programs and personnel with the use of law enforcement on campuses.”

The board of directors has also recommended that the NEA amend its legislative program—which represents the union’s agenda and priorities for federal action—to say that the NEA opposes “the use of law enforcement personnel or private security in the school discipline process; criminalizing school-age behaviors; … [and] the hiring of private security in the place of school resource officers or sworn law enforcement officers.”

See also

Police officer outside of a school
Collage by Vanessa Solis/Education Week (image: Bastiaan Slabbers/iStock)

These proposals represent the latest in the national union’s evolution in how it views school police. For years, the NEA published positive features on school police officers, with headlines like “More Than ‘Campus Cops:’ School resource officers are also role models for students and staff” and “Promoting School Safety With a Badge and a Smile.” (These articles are no longer on the NEA’s website.) And in 2013, the NEA supported federal efforts to fund more armed police officers in schools.

But after George Floyd, a Black man, was murdered at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer last summer, then-NEA President Lily Eskelsen García said she had “grave concerns about armed police officers in schools.” Since Floyd’s death, at least 33 school districts have eliminated their school police officers, according to an Education Week analysis.

In an address to delegates, Theresa Mitchell Dudley, a member of the NEA board of directors and the president of the Prince George’s County, Md., teachers’ union, said the union’s legislative committee held a listening session in February to hear from educators.

She said people asked questions like, “Why do 14 million students have a law enforcement presence on campus but no counselor, nurse, school psychologist, or social worker? Why are simple childhood behaviors being criminalized? Why do we have zero-tolerance policies?”

The resulting proposals will help the NEA fulfill its duty to protect students, Dudley said. “Time and time again, research shows that students of color are disproportionately impacted by law enforcement presence in schools, and at the same time, are sitting in underfunded schools,” she said.

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