In The Line Of Fire

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Bob Chase says he wants to reinvent the National Education Association and to bring issues of school quality to the bargaining table.

It's a stifling hot September evening in Palm Springs, California, and the air conditioners are working full-tilt at the Riviera Resort & Racquet Club, where 700 members of United Teachers Los Angeles have gathered for the union's annual leadership conference. Tonight, the teachers—all chapter chairs, the union faithfuls who represent individual schools throughout the enormous Los Angeles Unified School District—are in a festive mood as they dine on grilled chicken in the resort's grand ballroom. But the atmosphere turns serious when Robert Chase, tonight's keynote speaker, takes the stage. Dressed in a navy blue suit, white shirt, and red tie, the president of the National Education Association stands at the lectern, holding it firmly with both hands, and says, "Let's talk," as if to say, "Forget the small talk; let's get right down to business."

Chase, who began his career as a social studies teacher in Danbury, Connecticut, was elected president of the nation's largest teachers' union in July 1996. Since then, he has spent much of his time traveling around the country, preaching the gospel of what he calls the New Unionism. Last February, in a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Chase outlined his vision for a "reinvented" NEA. "Our new directions," he said, "are clear. Putting issues of school quality front and center at the bargaining table. Collaborating actively with management on an agenda of school reform. Involving teachers and other school employees in organizing their schools for excellence."

He then criticized his own organization, calling it a "traditional, somewhat narrowly focused union." And he went so far as to admit that there are some bad teachers in our public schools. "And it is our job to improve those teachers," he said, "or—that failing—to get them out of the classroom."

The late Albert Shanker, the longtime president of the American Federation of Teachers, was famous for such frank talk. Once, in an interview, he said, "There are teachers who can't write very well themselves. There are teachers who can't read very well. There are lots of teachers who can't spell. I get letters from some of them, so I can tell."

He, too, argued that teachers' reliance on militant, industrial-style trade unionism needed to be rethought. Indeed, he gave a speech in 1985 in which he urged teachers "to go beyond collective bargaining to teacher professionalism." Otherwise, he added, "we will fail in our major objectives: to preserve public education in the United States and to improve the status of teachers economically, socially, and politically."

But the NEA has long been the more cautious of the two unions. For years, the NEA resisted a number of school reforms, such as teacher testing and peer review, touted by Shanker and the AFT. While the AFT developed a reputation for being open-minded and innovative, the NEA's image was, in Chase's own words, that of "an obdurate and powerful protector of the status quo."

Not surprisingly, some NEA traditionalists felt betrayed by Chase's press club remarks. After the speech, a group of Wisconsin teachers, all local union leaders, wrote an open letter to the president accusing him of, in so many words, sleeping with the enemy. "There is no reason to accommodate the privateers, those who would destroy the essence of bilateral determinism achieved through collective bargaining," they wrote. "Because you were a social studies teacher before you became president of the NEA, you should understand the results of appeasement in Eastern Europe in the '30s and '40s."

Chase is a quiet but eloquent speaker who has been known to bring tears to the eyes of his listeners.

There's no doubt that Chase has widespread support within his union. After all, he was elected by a majority of NEA delegates at the union's 1996 representative assembly. But his critics still dog him, and tonight, in the California desert, they're ready to take a bite.

Earlier, as the teachers took their seats at the dinner tables, a group of dissident union members passed out a newsletter titled A Second Opinion: The Alternative Voice of UTLA, which contained a stinging attack of Chase's proposals. Written by Joel Jordan, a teacher at City of Angels School, a dropout-prevention program, the article criticized the union president for "his naive embrace of co-management and professional responsibility as the primary means to improve the quality of education. . . . Our experience in California shows that the most successful means of improving the schools is precisely through massive, militant pressure on school boards and the district bureaucracy, not reliance on a 'collaborative, non-adversarial process.' "

In other words, the New Unionism is No Unionism.

Chase, who has read the newsletter, is on the defensive right from the start of his speech. "I was elected and took office about a year ago on a platform that included something called New Unionism, in which I promised to bring about a lot of discussion and redirect our association in some big ways, to match—and please note, I said, 'to match,' and not 'to replace'—our traditional advocacy for wages, working conditions, and fringe benefits with a forceful new advocacy for quality schools and quality teaching for children."

When he mentions one of his favorite New Unionism topics—Columbus, Ohio's peer-review and peer-assistance program, once officially condemned by the NEA but now embraced as an example of creative collaboration—one teacher responds with a loud boo.

Chase is a quiet but eloquent speaker who has been known to bring tears to the eyes of his listeners. But he seems off tonight. It's the end of a long week, in which he traveled from Washington to Oak Park, Illinois, then back to Washington for a quick trip to Baltimore, then on to Pinellas County, Florida, before flying to Palm Springs this afternoon. At times, he comes across as a stern father lecturing his unruly children. At other times, he sounds weary, as if he's tired of having to defend his vision for a new NEA wherever he goes.

When he finishes his 30-minute speech, most of the teachers give him a polite but unenthusiastic response; some, however, give him a standing ovation. His antagonists, meanwhile, line up at microphones to fire questions at him. Soon, the heat is on, but Chase never loses his cool.

One teacher begins his comments by saying, "I belong to the greatest profession in the world: teaching," to which Chase replies, "Me, too." But the teacher is unimpressed.

"I want to hear that from you," he demands, "but I don't." He adds: "Why did we go into this business? You act as if this is something new, that we want to improve education."

Chase doesn't flinch. "Let me indicate to you, sir, that I am a 25-year veteran of teaching," he says. "I am on leave from my district right now, so I am still technically employed there. Let me also indicate to you that I couldn't agree more that the heart of the education system is teaching. All I'm saying to you is that over the years, as an organization—I'm not saying as individuals, but as an organization—issues of quality have not held the same level of intensity as have more traditional union activities. Now we have to make sure that we're doing both."

"But do we undermine ourselves by not saying this is where we've always been?" the teacher asks.

"I don't think we undermine ourselves at all," Chase says.

Another teacher brings up the controversial issue of peer review.

"I think that all of us support the idea of peer assistance," he says. "But I think we should separate the idea of peer assistance from peer review. I think we cross over the line when, as union members, we become part of the mechanism that fires teachers." A number of teachers cheer loudly at his comments.

'People ... elected me to be a leader, not an officeholder.'

Bob Chase, president, National Education Association

Eventually, the teacher gets around to his question: What about due process under such a system?

"I certainly understand the difficulty with this issue for a lot of people, for a lot of different reasons," Chase offers. "But as I indicated to you in my comments, I, too, would be opposed to peer review if that were the only purpose, if it weren't essentially a program to help teachers improve. Because that's what it is. The program in Columbus guarantees due process. Everyone's legal rights are guaranteed and protected, because, after all, every union has the responsibility of duty and fair representation, something I believe in to the very core of my being. These things do not have to be at odds with one another."

After a few more tough, sometimes hostile, questions, UTLA Vice President John Perez calls an end to the session, and everyone retires to a nearby banquet room for dessert. It's almost 10 o'clock, well after midnight for Chase. But the union leader is game. He heads off to the reception, where he continues to discuss his New Unionism ideas with smaller, friendlier groups of teachers.

"There can't be undiscussibles," he said earlier in his speech. "We must be willing to debate the tough, tough issues." And tonight, Chase is more than willing to do so.

Several days later, Chase is back in Washington in his cozy eighth-floor office at the NEA's massive headquarters, five blocks from the White House. He's sitting in an armchair in the office's small "living room" area, which contains a couch, a Persian rug, and a coffee table. The office itself is oddly impersonal, save for a broken statue of Don Quixote that Chase has had for years, photos of his two daughters (he is divorced), and a few photos of the union leader with schoolchildren and politicians, including President Clinton. From his window, Chase has a bird's-eye view of the Jefferson Hotel, where Clinton adviser Dick Morris was photographed on a balcony with a prostitute. "I never saw anything," says Chase, smiling, "but I worry about where the photos were taken from."

The reaction to his speech in Palm Springs, he says, was not unexpected, even though the UTLA—a "merged" local, that is, affiliated with both the NEA and the AFT—is known for its support of innovative, reform-minded programs. "There is a contingent of folks within the UTLA that doesn't like this direction," Chase says, "and I think they took the opportunity to voice their concerns. And that's fine. I didn't feel uncomfortable. I'm used to discussing it. I'm used to having folks disagree with it. I think that's healthy."

But he makes it clear that he isn't going to be swayed from his course. He was elected to make some changes, he insists, and intends to go forward with them. "People, I believe, elected me to be a leader, not an officeholder," he says. "If there wasn't strong and ample evidence that this is the direction that people want to go in, then we'd have to be doing something different."

Chase was the NEA's vice president for seven years before he was elected to his current, $178,907-per-year post. And while it's true that he ran on a platform of change, so did his opponent, NEA Secretary-Treasurer Marilyn Monahan. Indeed, the election was seen largely as a personality contest between two members of the union's inner circle. Both candidates said their biggest concern was the survival of public education, but they were short on specifics.

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