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NEA Convention Explainer: What the Heck Are 'New Business Items,' Anyway?

Washington

The question I tend to get most often from observers following along with EdWeek's National Education Association coverage is ... what do all the union's "new business items" actually do?

After all, discussion of these takes up the bulk of floor time at the convention. And it's where the NEA's headline items—like its decision to call for former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's removal in 2014—tend to emerge. 

The first thing to understand is that an NBI does not supersede the NEA's policy resolutions or statements, which are separately drafted and modified. An NBI directs the union to do something for a year, but isn't a permanent statement of belief. (NBIs are occasionally even removed from consideration because they conflict with the union's existing policies.)

Second, it takes only 50 delegates to move an NBI to the floor of the representative assembly, as the convention is known. This means a whole variety of topics and proposals, from the very specific to the grand and sweeping, can be debated. This year, for instance, one proposed NBI called on the union to donate money to a specific education rally; another would direct the union to "defend public schools by fighting privatization." 

Finally, even items that generate a lot of controversy among delegates when they're being debated or modified don't always end up doing a whole lot in the long run once they're passed. The report that the union issues on last year's new business is enlightening in this respect.

For example, among a swath of anti-testing items in 2015, delegates passed an item requiring the NEA to campaign to end the common-core-aligned tests put out by the two federally funded testing consortia. But the report on last year's NBIs says only this about that particular item: "NEA is coordinating with organizational partners to develop materials calling for testing audits, and to highlight efforts to fight the impact of high stakes standardized testing." 

And there were three different items last year touching on the testing opt-out movement; NEA appears to have deemed them all completed by putting up this portal on its website.

Some new business never gets implemented at all.

One 2015 NBI referred to the union's executive committee asked it to oppose the proficiency-score designations on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But NEA leaders didn't follow suit: "...The NEA Executive Committee decided that NEA will take no action on this NBI. ... If we do not use proficiency levels, it is significantly more difficult to identify and address significant gaps between student sub-groups," the report states.

Given that possibility, it's reasonable to ask: Why are these measures such a big deal? Why do state caucuses make entire lists of how they want delegates to vote? Why do delegates engage in floor strategy (voting blocs and getting pro-and-con speakers in front of the mics) over new business?

Over the years, I've reached the conclusion that debate over new business is probably more important in building the NEA's culture than for what a particular NBI does or doesn't accomplish.

After all, the NBI process gives every delegate a chance to put a topic before the 7,000 member assembly, and to hear it debated for pros and cons. It also gives members in, say, Virginia a chance to hear what issues are bubbling up in Arizona or California or New Hampshire. It allows delegates let off steam, even if ultimately not much changes on the topic in question.

I asked NEA President Lily Eskelen García about this, and she said that new business is an important part of the union's cherished democracy-with-a-small-D. Any delegate can speak on an NBI that's under debate; each is free to vote his or her own conscience, regardless of the position state leadership takes on the item; and it's not that hard to round up enough delegates to submit one to the RA.

"Fifty delegates?" she said. "You can get that in the line for the bathroom." 

So it comes down to this: The NEA's NBI process is complicated, messy, sometimes a bit embarrassing, and occasionally contested. But it's all part of how the NEA makes even the newest member or delegate feel empowered in the union.

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