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NEA President Calls for 'Student-Centered, Union-Led' Projects

Atlanta

In his keynote address today, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel called on his members to engage in "student-centered, union-led" efforts to improve the quality of teaching and learning in their schools.

"It is time for us to transform public education by taking charge of our profession, and that means taking responsibility for our profession and not allowing others define it for us," he said. "We must empower our members to create change. Some don't like the Association's focus on quality, quality in the classroom and quality in schools. But if we don't empower educators to take control of how to define quality, then who will? Congress? Governors? State politicians? Michelle Rhee? Maybe the Koch brothers?"

There's a lot of subtext within those short quotes, namely the need for NEA to remain relevant during a time of tremendous upheaval in the teaching profession—and an acknowledgement that the union has traditionally not been terribly successful at prior such efforts.

The speech was less heavy on matters directly political, though Van Roekel included some rhetoric about "corporate reformers" that recalled that of Diane Ravitch, a prominent critic of most current so-called reform initiatives. Still, even this point was relatively muted.

Van Roekel's speech began by recalling NEA's 1966 merger, right here in Atlanta, with the American Teachers Association, which at that time represented African-American teachers. It was a pivotal moment, he said, in the NEA's historical commitment to issues of social justice. That must continue today through engagement in quality issues, he suggested.

"If kids in your neighboorhood are denied the opportunity for quality pre-K programs," Van Roekel said, "then why not sponsor union-led workshops for parents and provide them with ideas and tools to assist their children?"

In some ways, this speech was aimed more at an internal audience than an external one. Why? NEA's executives are trying to get delegates to support a $3 dues increase. This increase, which would total about $6 million, would be put into a separate Fund for Great Public Schools to support state and local projects. This is not yet a done deal, and there are some murmurs of disapproval about the idea, though we won't know for a day or two whether that's widespread or merely a tempest in a teapot.

Overall, Van Roekel's call is also consistent with the tone struck in recent years by the American Federation of Teachers. AFT's President Randi Weingarten spoke last year about "solutions-driven unionism," for instance. And the proposed Fund for Great Public Schools sounds similar in concept to the AFT's Innovation Fund, which was announced back in 2009.

The big question, of course, is whether all these new projects will really take off or not. Traditionally, the "professionalism" agenda has been a very hard sell for NEA members. Former NEA President Bob Chase learned this the hard way with 1997's "New Unionism" initiatives. Last year, NEA's Priority Schools Campaign lost at least two staffers, and we've heard less about it since. At last year's convention, supporters couldn't drum up enough support to pass a New Business Item refocusing the union's UniServ program on teaching and learning issues. And does anyone remember Reg Weaver's call to create an economic-development program to be modeled on the Agricultural Extension Service?

At the same time, it says something that the NEA is pushing forward in this vein even during a time when the temptation to retreat into traditional positions must surely be strong. It's not a risk-free proposition: NEA's state caucuses are somewhat divided between those who favor resistance and the preservation of old prerogatives—and those who believe that unless the union steps up on quality control, eventually there will be no NEA left to save.

So we'll have to watch, and wait, to see whether these proposals are the one that will truly galvanize the union's members in the future.

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