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NEA Caucuses: The Serious, The Fun, the Odd

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Boston

By guest blogger Stephen Sawchuk

Even after all these years covering the National Education Association—I think this is my eigth or ninth Representative Assembly—there's more to learn.

Fatigued by some rather run-of-the mill new business after a red-meat speech from the NEA president, I spent time yesterday afternoon walking around the exhibit hall and learning more about the NEA's caucus structure. Essentially, the NEA's caucuses are internal interest groups that try to focus the union's attention on specific issues.

(They are not to be confused with the state caucuses, which are formed by each state's delegation.)

There's a Democratic Caucus and a Digital Learning Caucus and a caucus for school nurses and a caucus for conservative teachers, among dozens of others.

Some of them, like the various ethnic minority caucuses, have an important role in NEA governance by finding new leaders and recommending candidates for some of the union's committees. Others, like the Math Caucus, appeal to educators of a specific content area or role.

A certain number of teachers need to join for the NEA to recognize a caucus. And like any other exhibitor at the convention, each caucus has to pay if it wants to secure a booth where members can distribute literature and meet interested educators. 

My first stop was to the Arts Education Caucus, where outgoing Vice Chair Pamela Gibberman explained her group's goal: to help promote the importance of arts education within the union. It meets over the course of the RA to craft new business items on arts education, hear about the state of arts education across the states, and answer any questions delegates may have.

Members take the job seriously. There's a small required fee to pay to become a member, and the group has its own governance. The Arts Education Caucus also runs a scholarship program that provides $500 for a secondary student to pursue art after graduation.

The NEA Caucus of Educators of Exceptional Children spends a lot of time working with other educators and parents about special education and helping them find resources. It has a six-year track record of helping pass new business items relating to special education, caucus Vice-Chair Clinton Smith said proudly.

What's the best thing about belonging to the caucus? I asked Smith, who is an associate professor at the University of Tennessee at Martin.

"Networking, building relationships, providing good evidence-based resources to those who need it," he said.

Some caucuses exist for purely fun reasons, like the Chocolate Caucus, whose raison d'être seems to be loving chocolate, which it also sells at the expo.

I'm told there's a Beer Caucus, but didn't see its folks around. [Burp.] 

And then there were a few caucuses that struck me as a bit out of place. There's the Ex-Gay Caucus, which supports "former homosexuals" and alternatives to homosexuality, according to its website. On social matters, the NEA tilts quite liberal, and given that many scientists and mental health experts believe the ex-gay movement harms youths, this was interesting to discover.

Even more curious: The NEA Creation Science Educators' Caucus. This one apparently was formed decades ago under earlier rules, when a caucus needed only one member to win recognition. It still has only one member, its founder, whose primary purpose is to distribute materials that argue for an alternative to evolutionary science. Tony Ramsek, a volunteer for the group—not a delegate—told me it plans to give 3,000 DVDs away at the convention. He emphasized that they're not for classroom use: "We want to educate the educators," he said.

Hmm. What do you do, I asked a delegate nearby, about some of these, uh, rather outré caucuses? 

She rolled her eyes. "Grin and bear it," she said.

The caucus structure, like much of the NEA, is big, messy, and somewhat contradictory. But it's a real resource for delegates and members. It underscores the wide diversity of opinions within the union. It's a bit of everything for everyone. It's part of what makes the NEA the NEA.

Photo: A caucus board lists details on each caucus' meeting times. 

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