July 25, 2011

RA Report from Bill Balderston: The massive gathering that is the convention (representative assembly) of the National Education Association , the nation's largest union with 3.1 million members, came together in Chicago on July 1st-5th.. Despite a lower number of delegates in the last couple years, slightly less than 9000 (down from the ten thousand in earlier times), it is still the largest delegated decision-making body in the world. This fall-off is partly due to massive layoffs of education workers, combined with the difficult economic situation many locals face in these times. Part a P.T. Barnum like spectacle, the RA is also an impressive demonstration of a democratic decision-making body, that despite considerable leadership manipulation, still proves the ability of working people to build broad institutions which allow real input of members. Even while acknowledging the spectacle and lesser figure of participants, the Assembly still dealt with a number of matters which not only clearly impacted the working conditions of members (and the learning conditions of students) and the level of political involvement of the union, but also related to the overall struggle for union rights and public services throughout the US.
The context for these debates is all too evident. Public education is the major battlefield not only for struggles over adequate funding for public services (most education funds are from the state and local levels), but a critical ideological testing ground for understanding the value of government-run services and the workers/unions which provide them.This conflict in part centers on battles over union rights (which are certainly not limited to Wisconsin, Ohio, and Michigan) and are increasingly national, bi-partisan attacks; teacher unions are portrayed as the most rigid and intransigent, attempting to protect members (often the most senior) who are "incompetent' . Additionally, we are labeled as obstacles to 'real reforms', which are said to be in the best interest of student/parents, many of whom are facing blatant economic and racial discrimination (note the recent film "Waiting for Superman"). Rarely do we hear about how curriculum has been bastardized to conform to numbing standardized tests, how charter schools are massively subsidized under this new approach, receiving public monies even while showing little accountability to the public and being mainly non-union, how new policy pushes divisive merit pay and seeks to undermine seniority. All this, while more and more working class youth are pushed out of the education system and/or have their opportunities severely curtailed. At the center of all these policies is the Obama administration and its Department of Education, using legal/funding measures such as "Race to the Top" (really the basement) to further this agenda.
Despite such major attacks on the rights and influence of the teacher unions (including the American Federation of Teachers, the other mostly education workers' union), the union leadership seem to respond with a combination of an Ali-like "Rope-a-dope' passivity and a lemming-like desire to co-operate in their own execution.
This is justified by the desire to have a 'place at the table' and have these politicians 'see reason'; it totally ignores the fact that there is a consensus on the austerity/'neo-liberal' program pushed by both parties, although the Democrats seek to have unions and others of their institutional base actually agree to this self-destruction.
Which leads back to the NEA Assembly. There were two major items of controversy which received national visibility.. The first was the early endorsement of the Obama re-election bid; this was already advocated by the national leadership, despite some resistance from several state affiliates, including the California Teachers Association (CTA). Most of the debate during the RA occurred within the state caucuses which was very contentious, not only in California, but states like Tennessee and Oklahoma. As Steve Neat, an Oakland delegate stated, "I fail to see what leverage we have with an administration which can only be classifies as unfriendly to teacher rights and disdainful of teachers' opinions." In addition, the NEA leaders called in Vice-President Joe Biden to speak on July 3rd; not only did it significantly disrupt the RA, but was an insult to members from the person we now know is the administration's chief negotiator around slashing federal social spending. The final vote of 5,414 to 2,102 for early endorsement (with nearly a thousand not voting) is not an adequate expression of the level of anger and frustration felt by so many delegates.
The second major debate concerned a new revised NEA policy on "Teacher Accountability and Evaluation". This item allows for (yet to be developed) "fair" standardized tests to be used as part of a teacher's evaluation. While there was some strong language around teacher/union input and due process for probationary teachers, there was general concern that this measure would serve as mainly a bargaining chip in negoatiations with the Obama administration and various levels of the education bureaucracy. Though the NEA leaders vowed to resist any ultimate determining role of such tests in teacher evaluation and compensation, the recent speeches by NEA President Dennis Van Roekel (and AFT President Randi Weingarten) indicate otherwise.
There were many other new business items focused on education policy. These included motions around encouraging parental resistence to the forced taking of standardized testing, and limiting the impact of programs such as Teach for America, which encourage a revolving door situation at most urban schools (whatever the good intentions of individual TFA participants). There was also considerable discussion on the impact of the Citizens United case which allows for unlimited spending on elections by corporations. As Jim Mordecai, one of those active around this issue, noted "Itis time to fight money power with people power." Although the NEA (and most of the AFL-CIO unions, supported the Supreme Court decision, since they are actually categorized as 'corporations'), one new legislative amendment passed at the RA calling for the NEA to support a Constitutional Amendment which would allow Congress and the States to regulate election expenditures and called for a fair system of campaign disclosure.
The NEA Peace & Justice Caucus raised a number of motions dealing with a wide range of issues . Nancy Porter of Iowa, speaking for the caucus called for the NEA to join the New Priorities Network and advocated for an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. She said, "As long as the government continues to back corporate programs aimed at bank bailouts and wars of occupation, teachers and students will never receive the resources we need and will continue to face major cuts." This motion was referred to the NEA Board, as were a number of other items dealing with organizing around social justice. While the general tone at the RA on such broader issues (the rights of teachers/students in the Mideast, militarization in the schools, et al) remained fairly conservative, we did make some progress on policy around single-payer health care (which the NEA nominally endorses); the delegates voted to have the NEA join the Labor Campaign for Single-Payer and to adopt a policy advocating for a Medicare-like system for all US youth, 22 years of age and under. The P&J Caucus also hosted an event for representatives from CORE, the rank-n-file grouping within the Chicago Teachers Union which has recently gained leadership in the CTU; a number of NEA delegates attended a 'teacher fightback' conference initiated by CORE after the RA.
The Assembly re-elected the current NEA top officers - Van Roekel and VP Lily Eskelsen, by over 90%, although this was the first contested election for these positions in many years. Despite this overwhelming majority, it is clear that there is need for an oppositional force inside the NEA (and the AFT). This would center around a program for the rejuvenation of public education, centered on smaller class size, expansion of programs for career developmen, culture/arts classes, ethnic studies, greater access to higher education, with little/no tuition/fees for the students, defense of and extending preschool, afterschool and adult education programs, improvement of compensation and support for teachers (and greater recruitment of teachers of color) and other visionary measures. This must be combined with a call for political independence, advocating a 'tax the rich' response to the austerity, efforts at mass organizing between teachers and parents/students, and most certainly, greater demonstration of union solidarity in the public sector and fighting to increase and improve quality public services.

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