The National Education Association
Representative Assembly opened this morning in front of 9,201 delegates
which, despite early NEA projections, is slightly down from last year’s
total, and nowhere near the nearly 10,000 delegates who appeared for the
merger debate in 1998. The press turnout wasn’t much better, as the
Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel was the only daily newspaper represented, and
Education Week the only other newspaper of any sort.
Speeches. As is customary at the RA, the head of the host committee got
the first opportunity to address the assembly. Ann Davis, president of the
Illinois Education Association, welcomed the delegates and familiarized them
with IEA’s record of bipartisanship (though she did mention IEA would be
working hard to elect Al Gore to the presidency). IEA backed the Republican
for governor in a tight race in 1998. That victorious Republican, George
Ryan, was next to speak.
Gov. Ryan, whom we can presume is a supporter of certain GOP nominee
George W. Bush, did his part for the Republican cause by giving such a dull
speech it’s likely most RA delegates will still be comatose come November,
unable to help Gore. My photojournalism skills are in need of remediation as
I failed to pull my camera out in time to capture an exquisite moment on
film. A member of Gov. Ryan’s security detail, standing below the podium,
checked his watch and stifled a yawn as the governor enthralled the crowd
with line-item details from the Illinois state budget.
NEA President Bob Chase focused on some new themes in his keynote
address. Chase said that he had "heard from more of you about standards and
high-stakes tests than any other single issue since becoming president of
the NEA." He cited ridiculous requirements of some tests, such as a Virginia
test question that asks third-grade students to describe various aspects of
Greek and Roman civilization. "In some states, testing mania is quite
literally devouring whole school systems like some education-eating
bacteria," Chase said. Last year vouchers were leeches, this year
standardized tests are bacteria. When he explains how block grants are
maggots, I’m bugging out.
The second new theme was gun control. Chase seems to be trying to place
NEA in the midst of the this debate. My sense is that he believes it will
end the string of school shootings. Chase spent a good portion of his speech
attacking Charlton Heston and the NRA. But Chase and his speech writers went
out on a rhetorical limb and it very nearly cracked."Today, too many
politicians are on the side of the biggest checkbook," Chase told the
delegates. "Children die in Paducah and the NRA writes a politician a check.
Parents are killed in Springfield, and the NE-- NRA writes a politician a
check." Chase’s near-Freudian slip (and the endless PAC solicitations)
illustrated that the union cannot hold the moral high ground when it comes
to political check-writing.
At this point Chase segued into the OVD (Obligatory Voucher
Denunciation). "How come vouchers keep coming back?" Chase asked. "Well, the
voucher people have been quite open about this. They boast that they win
even when they lose ballot initiatives. Why? Because they think that the
energy and resources we expend opposing vouchers are energy and resources we
cannot devote to advancing public schools. But they underestimate us." He
then called on the delegates to support the proposed dues increase to fight
state ballot initiatives.
+ Gun Control, Merger Stir Debate. Gun control came up again very
quickly as New Business Item B was debated. The item requires NEA to prepare
and distribute petitions calling for "meaningful gun control," to be
collected and presented to Congress on or before February 1, 2001. The NBI
passed, but there were a surprising number of delegates who spoke against
it. In the end, about one-quarter to one-third of the delegates voted no.
The only other NBI of note was one calling on NEA to organize a National
March on Washington for Equal, Quality Public Education for fall 2000. It
was resoundingly voted down due to the $2.5 million price tag.
I had supposed that the state merger issue had finally been settled last
year with the passage of several by-law amendments that addressed how
national dues would be distributed. I was wrong. This year the final piece
of the state merger puzzle is to be voted on -- a constitutional amendment
that would tie RA and NEA Board of Directors representation to the
percentage of dues a merged state affiliate pays. Simple. If you pay 65
percent of your national dues to NEA, you get 65 percent of the normal
national representation. This constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds
majority that will be voted on by secret ballot Wednesday morning.
Judging only by the number of objections and questions raised during the
floor debate, it appears possible the amendment could fail. If this were to
happen, NEA General Counsel Bob Chanin explained, last year’s by-law
amendments "would be declared null and void," throwing the entire state
merger issue into chaos. In essence, a one-third minority this year could
overturn the wishes of 70-80 percent majorities from last year. It’s obvious
NEA simply did not have a Plan B in 1998, to be instituted in the event
national merger was defeated. It appears the union will try to muddle
through this merger limbo until the NEA leadership feels confident enough to
field Principles of Unity II -- The Empire Strikes Back.
Debate began (and will be continued tomorrow) on the $5 per active member
dues increase. Student NEA members will be pleased to know they are
currently exempt, but that their representatives are planning to offer an
amendment to raise their dues by $1 to go into the same fund.
+ Line Already Forming to Spend Dues Increase. President Bob Chase
indirectly confirmed news EIA had received from another source: The $7.5
million for initiatives that the dues increase will raise may already be
almost entirely spoken for. Chase said NEA expects $7 million in requests
for the first installment of the increase. The California Teachers
Association alone is expected to ask for $5 million to fight the voucher
+ Quote of the Day. "If we waited to read everything that we’re
voting on here, we’d never vote on anything." -- Len Paolillo of the
Massachusetts Teachers Association. Paolillo’s NBI would have required NEA
to distribute the findings of Richard Rothstein’s book, The Way We Were?
The Myths and Realities of America’s Student Achievement. Paolillo
offered the above in response when delegate John Chong of Hawaii said he
could not vote to spend members’ dues to disseminate something he hadn’t