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July 3, 2000
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.

+ Opening 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 initiative.

+ 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 read.


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