NEA Convention 2012: Obama Coming In Garbled

The 2012 National Education Association Representative Assembly adjourned tonight at 6:57 pm. The big news angle to today’s proceedings was the phone call to the delegates from President Obama during his bus tour in Ohio.

When the call finally came in, two things immediately came to mind:

1) Oh my God! Someone drove the President’s bus into the Cuyahoga River!

2) I hope the phone connection is better if he suddenly needs to call in a nuclear strike.

It turned out OK because NEA hired some awesome closed-captioning people to type up the President’s remarks in real time, and he didn’t say anything unusual. I do think, however, the President gave a hint as to how he will handle education issues in the campaign and deal with lingering dissatisfaction from a significant portion of the union.

The President emphasized the funding for teachers’ jobs in the stimulus bill, and the additional funding in the follow-on “edujobs” bill. He didn’t mention Race to the Top, Arne Duncan, charter schools, performance pay, or really any policy issue. And he took a swipe at Mitt Romney, saying, “My opponent mocks the idea that we need more teachers.”

As NEA campaigns for Obama, it will stick to the same emphasis: funding and the vulnerabilities of Romney. Addressing the other issues will wait until after the election… probably to no effect, but what else can NEA do?

The President signed off with “I’m looking forward to seeing you guys on the campaign trail.” To which NEA president Dennis Van Roekel responded, “We’re behind you all the way.” I think part of the frustration is that the union has been behind him, instead of in front of his face.

The delegates also mopped up the rest of their new business items, voting down many due to budget concerns. Here are just a few they handled today:

NBI 62, which was to create a charter school organizing program, was modified to “encourage” affiliates to organize charter school teachers. This essentially means it will amount to nothing. The California delegate who introduced the motion said, “Organizing charter schools is an investment in the survival of our organization.”

NBI 64, the “Friends of Public Education Card” I made fun of the other day, was referred to committee because “it’s already in the works.” I might buy one just so I can have my picture taken with it and post it at the top of my blog.

NBI 71 was approved. It will try to mimic the efforts of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) from the opposite side, compiling draft bills to be used in state legislatures across the country. I nearly wet myself when the Arkansas delegate who introduced the measure informed us, “Our state affiliates have identified enemies of public education - both overt and covert.” I’ll let you figure out whether it was from fear or laughter. If they print up an “Enemies of Public Education Card,” I’ll buy one of those as well.

NBI 83, the measure to have hotels run “Game of Thrones” on TV on a continual loop, or something like that, was withdrawn by its creator, as was NBI 87, which was to send a letter of disappointment to the President for fleeing Washington. Just as well. I’m sure the President would have simply replied he was being Madisonesque.

The final action item was to vote on the union’s budget. In the 15 years I have been covering the convention, this was the first time NEA had to make cuts. So it wasn’t a surprise that it was also the first year the budget elicited a boatload of questions and complaints from delegates.

Specific questions about the staff reductions were turned away by Van Roekel as being under the purview of executive director John Stocks. He did say Stocks was directing a “consolidation of several departments and streamlining of operations,” which sounded pretty corporate for a social justice patriot.

Van Roekel revealed that the early retirement of 56 staffers had netted $7.1 million in savings for the union. That’s about $127,000 per retirement, if you’re scoring at home.

After an unprecedented 17 questions on the budget - some of them hostile - Van Roekel asked the delegates if they wanted to close debate. Since they were about 13 hours into their day, they did.

Just before the mad dash for the exits, we learned the NEA political action committee had raised $3.8 million so far this year - more than a third of that in the last four days. The delegates contributed an average of $182 each to the national PAC.