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Union Aims to Remake Its Image, Help Re-Elect Obama

One of the National Education Association's goals in the future will be to improve its communications strategy to present a more unified and positive image to policymakers and politicians.

If the Representative Assembly is any indication, so far the union has been remarkably consistent on this front. The introduction to the union's strategic budget, for instance, calls on "stopping the the attacks on our members" and "leading the efforts to improve quality and equity in education." The union's executive director, John Stocks, spoke at length about both issues in an interview with me this morning. And today, those two prongs were also the main themes in the speech NEA President Dennis Van Roekel gave in his annual address to delegates.

The speech was rather subdued, largely free of the red meat (No Child Left Behind, Republicans) that often characterizes these kinds of addresses, but the two themes still stood out loud and clear.

On the idea of strengthening affiliates, the NEA's first priority is getting President Obama re-elected.

"We can't set education policy by ourselves, but we do have the power to influence it. And first on the list—we must do everything we can to re-elect President Barack Obama," Van Roekel said, to cheers from the delegates.

Van Roekel outlined a list of Obama administration successes that, he argued, make him worthy of the union's support, such as as the "edujobs" funding that has kept "more than 400,000" educators working; the health-care reform law; Obama's recent executive order regarding immigrant students; and the last-minute Congressional effort to keep student loan rates from doubling.

It's worth pointing out two notable omissions from this list: The federal Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants, programs the administration created that the NEA has strongly criticized.

In probably the newsiest part of the speech, Van Roekel came close to acknowledging that the union's reluctance to take on issues like failing schools and poor teaching has exacerbated some of the challenges it now faces.

"Frankly, our current system allowed the market for [vouchers and charters] to exist," he said. "We are part of that system—a system that has not successfully addressed the dropout crisis and allows kids who are poor to be stuck in schools that do not meet their needs—placed into classrooms year after year with the least qualified, least experienced teachers.

It's not enough to say that most teachers are good. If there is even one classroom with a teacher who isn't prepared or qualified, we can't accept that. ... let's use our collective power to raise the level of preparation for those coming into our profession, and improve the practice of those who are already here."

While professional issues of this sort have reportedly been close to Van Roekel's heart for a while, they have not always been embraced by some of the union's state and local affiliates.

It's an old quandary for the NEA's leaders; just ask former President Bob Chase about the "new unionism."

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