The National Education Association Representative Assembly opened this morning with 7,024 delegates attending – a touch higher than last year’s nadir of 6,931 delegates.
Dennis Van Roekel delivered his final keynote speech as NEA president and I’m at a loss to analyze these performances anymore. Everyone has a unique style, but there are only so many ways you can say, “There are Evil forces arrayed against us, but we shall prevail for we are Good!”
Van Roekel told a horror story about a school in Trenton, New Jersey, he visited that was crowded, dingy, dark, and often flooded. I don’t doubt his veracity, but I’m sure his tale had more effect on people who were unaware than Trenton spends more than $17,000 per pupil. It’s not lack of funding bedeviling those unfortunate kids.
He tried to set today’s tribulations in a historical context of attacks beginning with A Nation at Risk and continuing on through No Child Left Behind. “We can’t allow politicians to define the solutions,” he said as he called on the delegates to “change the system.”
What would come immediately to mind to a room not filled with teacher union activists is that NEA is very much the system and that the union helped elect many of the politicians who are defining the solutions, particularly in the case of No Child Left Behind. An enemies list that used to consist solely of John Walton and the current Republican president/presidential candidate now grows long with assorted billionaires, neoliberals, privatizers, machine Democrats, Democrats for Education Reform, Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Pearson Corporation, the Koch Brothers, Eli Broad, Bill Gates and a host of companies and organizations that turn a profit from the education business. (How does McGraw-Hill stay off this list?) The list of allies is shrinking faster than the membership numbers.
Most candidates for NEA office were similarly agitated in their campaign speeches, each vying with the next to say the same thing, only louder.
You shouldn’t get the idea that the delegates are going to return home and start burning down buildings. They will act as circumstances dictate in their states and local school districts. But the message they are getting while they are here is not to work together with others to reach a consensual solution to the problems of public education. It’s to fight for our side until the opposition submits. That plays well in a hall of besieged unionists. With everyone else, it’s bound to reinforce their negative image of NEA.
Early prediction: Lily Eskelsen Garcia’s first keynote address in 2015 will read from a longer enemies list.