Friday, August 24, 2012

Labor Pains

The National Education Association  

by Terrell Clemmons, guest blogger

Background:
In 1857, the National Teachers Association (NTA) organized in Philadelphia with forty-three members. In 1870, it absorbed three smaller associations of educators and became the National Education Association (NEA). In 1867, the NTA had successfully lobbied Congress to establish a federal Department of Education, but the agency was soon demoted to a minor bureau in the Department of the Interior. Public schools continued to be the responsibility of states and local school boards until 1979, when the NEA finally succeeded in gaining centralized control of education with the creation of the U. S. Department of Education under President Jimmy Carter.

NEA policy is set by a 9,000 member Representative Assembly (RA) which meets every July to elect NEA officers and set the agenda for state and local affiliates. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., with 3.2 million members (more than half of America’s public school teachers) paying dues in excess of $377 million/year, the NEA is the single most powerful political force affecting public education today.  


Under Surveillance For:
On its website, the NEA defines its mission, vision, and values with one statement, “Every child deserves a quality education.” We are a “strong, united team making a difference for American’s children.” Truth be told, the NEA is a strong, united team, but the difference it makes more often works to the detriment, rather than for the betterment, of quality education. Local NEA affiliates do offer helpful workshops for teachers from time to time, and there are countless unsung heroes serving tirelessly in the classroom. But these things happen in spite of, not because of, the NEA.

In contrast to the slogans, statements from NEA executives consistently reveal one objective: attaining and wielding power. In the 1970s, executive director Terry Herndon said, “The ultimate goal of the NEA is to tap the legal, political, and economic power of the U. S. Congress. We want leaders and staff with sufficient clout that they may roam the halls of Congress and collect votes to reorder the priorities of the United States of America.” In 1982, president Mary Hatwood Futrell let slip the goal of NEA power. “The major purpose of our association is not the education of children, it is or ought to be the extension and/or preservation of our members’ rights.” And today, protectionist power remains paramount. President Dennis Van Roekel said in 2009, “NEA is rooted in the power of collective action—it is one of our core values.”

Recent Offense:
In recent years Americans have engaged in a surge of efforts to address the crisis in education, and the self-serving nature of the NEA is most glaringly apparent in its mammoth opposition to them. Changes that actually improve the quality of education for children – charter schools, for example, any form of school choice, or changes whereby teacher pay and retention depend on merit or student achievement rather than seniority and tenure – encounter massive opposition and obstruction.

At the 2010 RA, Van Roekel called for another year of political activism to meet the threats, “If we are not the activists in politics, we will be the victims of politics.” Later that week, NEA Friend of Education award winner Diane Ravitch amplified the summons to resist. “The current ‘education reform’ movement is pushing bad ideas. It wants to end tenure and seniority, to silence teachers’ unions, to privatize large sectors of public education. Don’t let it happen!”  

Children? What children? This is about us!

This article first appeared in Salvo 15, Winter 2010

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