NEA Convention 2011: Delegates Hate Duncan, Hate to Hate Obama

There were two new business items (NBIs) of note debated this afternoon. The first was NBI C, submitted by the NEA Board of Directors, which directs the NEA president to “communicate aggressively, forcefully, and immediately to President Barack Obama and US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that NEA is appalled with Secretary Duncan’s practice of…” and then lists 13 of Duncan’s most heinous crimes, like “Focusing so heavily on charter schools that viable and proven innovative school models (such as magnet schools) have been overlooked, and simultaneously failing to highlight with the same enthusiasm the innovation in our non-charter public schools.”

Included in the charges were two counts of heavy focusing, four counts of failure to recognize, one count of felony myth-perpetuating, and a misdemeanor count of weighing in.

The delegates convicted Duncan on all counts, and approved the measure.

Later on, NBI 8 came up for debate. It sought a middle ground among factions within the convention hall arguing for and against approving the NEA board of directors’ early endorsement of President Obama for re-election in 2012.

The delegates will vote on the endorsement by secret ballot on the 4th. The endorsement requires 58% of the vote to pass.

The item proposed a mail-in ballot from delegates next January. It was defeated, but not until there was some debate over the early endorsement.

A little background is necessary. It was in NEA’s mind back in 2007 to endorse a presidential candidate a year before the election, and not wait until July of election year, when traditionally the nominations have been all but wrapped up.

But NEA’s timing was bad. It sought to speed up its endorsement process during the one election cycle when two candidates – Obama and Hillary Clinton – split the Democratic Party right down the middle.

Unable to choose between the two, the union hemmed and hawed and stalled until Obama had clinched the nomination, then endorsed him. Of course, they fully supported Obama in the general election, but I don’t know of a single political analyst who has claimed that NEA was uniquely instrumental in the Obama victory.

Fast forward to today, when the stars seem to finally align for NEA. They have a Democratic incumbent president with no primary challenger, and a host of Republicans they believe will send them back to the day when Pleistocene Man had to teach his children to hunt and fish without the benefit of a state pension.

Except many delegates are not thrilled with Obama and his Secretary of Education. Oh, they’re pretty happy about the money he’s disbursed to save their jobs, but he’s too pally with the education reform wing of the Democratic Party. So they’re trying to come up with a compromise between kissing his rear and telling him to go to hell.

Some of them think they’ve hit upon the solution: getting rid of Duncan. Duncan’s scalp is to be the price of an early endorsement.

But if they think that’s going to happen, they’ve misread Obama, and not for the first time. Here’s something I wrote after last year’s convention:

So here we are, not quite at the stage of open warfare between NEA and the White House, but headed down that road. Neither side shows an inclination to back down. In Congress and in statehouses, the clarity of its Professor Wagstaff stance will benefit the union. Obama and the Democrats will need NEA activism in what promises to be a challenging election year.

But when it comes to public and media relations, NEA’s entrenchment is disastrous. If the union rails against an Obama administration, it signals that it can’t work with anyone short of a hand puppet. An “us against the world” battle cry works wonders for union activism, but it’s problematic because “the world” has a lot more votes.

The teachers’ unions don’t like to be attacked, but what they are really worried about is being ignored. If we ever reach that point, then we’ll know the political climate has truly changed.

Tomorrow, Vice President Biden is scheduled to appear before the delegates. Whatever he says, it won’t reassure the delegates about the general direction of the Obama administration.

Will Obama effectively ignore NEA? Will he win anyway? And if he does, what then would his second term bring to public education? It’s hard to paint a happy picture for the union in national politics under these circumstances.