After a protracted debate, delegates to the National Education Association voted on Sunday to take a position of "no confidence" in the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top guidelines and in the use of competitive grants as a basis for the reauthorization of ESEA.
It was a symbolic slam on the Obama administration. But as with NEA President Dennis Van Roekel's keynote speech, it stopped short of actually calling out the U.S. president, a supporter of the program. And the debate over the item provided the clearest picture yet of both the internal and external difficulties the NEA faces pushing against an education agenda promoted by a Democratic administration, rather than a Republican one.
For one, the item passed by a razor-thin margin. Most pass with a simple voice vote. New Business Item 2 required a standing vote, where delegates pro and con stand, in turn. The room looked to be divided almost in half, and the item very nearly moved to a roll call vote.
One delegate who opposed it noted the Tennessee and Delaware state unions' participation in their states' winning Race to the Top applications, and feared that the item's sentiment didn't accurately represent the diversity of opinion about the program.
"A number of our state affiliates have signed on to the Race to the Top, as have a number of local affiliates," she said. "To make a blanket statement that we have no confidence in Race to the Top is a conflicting message, and a disunity message."
Others worried about political ramifications. "I agree with the principle of the resolution but not with the term 'no confidence,' " the delegate said. "I'm not sure that's the way we want to go into reauthorization, throwing punches."
Yet others felt that it was time for the NEA to come out more strongly against the administration. "The worst thing that can happen is that we are divided on this, because our opposition will seize on [it]," said one delegate.
Even then, the resolution did not actually name or blame President Barack Obama for the policies. At least one delegate said he felt that those omissions were disingenuous.
"Arne Duncan was not on the ballot. The policies of the Department of Education are the policies of the Obama administration," the delegate said. "We have to step up and say that the policies of the Obama administration, we do not agree with those."
Another delegate seemed to agree, saying that even if NEA wouldn't connect the dots, the media and public would have no problems doing so. "The one line the press will pull from this convention is that we have 'no confidence' in RTTT, which translates to the Department of Education, which translates to Barack Obama," she said.
For the NEA, Barack Obama is quickly becoming the equivalent of Voldemort: He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
Still, the delegates were on the whole worked up enough that they rejected an amendment to strike out the "no confidence" language and replace it with a softer phrase.
The author of the NBI 2, Phil Rumore, president of the Buffalo, N.Y., affiliate, got applause when he was introducing the resolution: "Some people are going to be mad at us if we pass this. Well let the word get out," he said. The program, he added, would exacerbate policies that "brutalize our students with standardized tests, which in my opinion is like giving someone blood tests until they die."
From another supporter: "The Race to the Top is a gun with bullets in it to take out teachers, public education, and the union itself."
Camille Zombro, the head of the San Diego affiliate, seemed to have the last word. "Teachers would never have put together a program like Race to the Top," she said. "Even in states that are trying to make lemonade, ... you were still given a lemon."