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July 7, 2011 Print

Dig Deeper: NEA Convention Message–Down with School Choice and Competition

by Candi Cushman

The lead editorial in The Wall Street Journal recently declared this “The Year of School Choice,” reporting that 13 states having passed major educational reforms. Ironically, at the same time that headline appeared, the National Education Association (NEA) was winding down its annual convention (June 27-July 5)–which demonstrated yet again how painfully out of touch the union is with the national movement for parental empowerment.

Instead of fighting alongside the impoverished families (many of whom are minorities) who are crying out for equal opportunity to choose the highest quality education for their kids, the NEA declared “war” against the “attacks on public education.”

For instance, here is an excerpt from the agenda for one of the events during the convention week (the “NEA Human and Civil Rights Joint Conference on Concerns of Minorities and Women”):

“The election of 2010 was a disaster for public educators and unions. Elected to office were politicians seeking to undermine public sector employee unions. What’s more, these same politicians, joining forces with others already in office, have revived efforts to voucherize, charterize and privatize public education, while demonizing public school employees. What actions can we take to defend public education and our unions, while defeating our attackers?”

Wow—“defeating our attackers” is strong language. Looks like there’s no middle ground in the NEA when it comes to school choice.

Aside from the fact that some interesting new verbs were just invented for the English language in that paragraph (“charterize”?), it also does a good job reflecting the war-like tone and overt partisanship that cropped up in many of the NEA convention speeches and votes. In addition to feeling like a leper if you happened to be a school choice supporter—it wouldn’t have been very much fun to be a Republican either:

In his speech, NEA President Dennis Van Roekel accused opponents of wanting “to privatize public education so politically connected insiders can make a profit at the expense of students and educators.” He also listed several Republican education reform governors by name—such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Florida Gov. Rick Scott—eliciting rowdy boos  from the audience. He asserted that “The election of 2010 shifted the balance of power nationally and in many states. Since then, we have seen attacks on public education…”

But we would argue that, far from being an “attack on public education” empowering parents with more educational choices rescues children and levels the playing field for families of all incomes.  Introducing competition into the school system is not a bad thing—because ultimately it makes the schools answerable to the parents, rather than politicians and bureaucrats. And the truth is, defending the status quo in public education for the sake of adult interests is simply no longer an option: U.S. taxpayers invest more than $500 billion annually into K-12 public schools – with little to show for it. Achievement scores have stagnated over the last few decades.

The nation’s largest teachers union, however, apparently wants to maintain the money stream without the accountability: Van Roekel was quick to reassure his audience that all would be well because “We can win this war” and “we are closing ranks.” He demanded that  the “NEA must take a stand at this RA [representative assembly] and support the reelection of President Barack Obama.”

The union assembly promptly did as it was told— voting to provide President Obama with one of the earliest endorsements for his re-election campaign.

But the NEA president’s speech begs the question—what exactly is the union fighting for in its self-proclaimed “war”? Is it the interests of thousands of children who remain trapped in failing and unsafe schools—or is it to retain power among politically connected leaders who can further  adult union leaders’ interests?  (View transcripts and videos of the speech here.)

Sadly, many of the convention votes and actions seem to point to the latter. Here are a few worth mentioning:

  • The NEA adopted New Business Item 23, which states that, “The NEA shall increase the focus on privatization [translation: school choice and all other forms of free market competition that threaten union power] by utilizing existing communication vehicles to regularly educate and update all members about privatization and the resources available to fight it [translation: launch public smear campaign against school choice and other forms of threatening competition].
  • Even though the union endorsed President Obama, it also took time to condemn his administration for education reform efforts that conflicted with the NEA’s agenda. For instance, New Business Item C “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 …” Then it lists a whole litany of crimes including “Focusing so heavily on charter schools ” instead of traditional public schools.
  • The union also decided to “publicly oppose” Teach for America (a nonprofit program that places top college graduates in struggling rural and inner-city schools) when that program’s placements are perceived to threaten union members’ jobs and salaries.  (Review the Business Items here.)

Overall, the NEA convention reflected a union very much on the defensive toward efforts to empower parents rather than politicians and bureaucrats—and very conflicted about an Obama administration that is beginning to understand the power of that momentum.

For more information on the school choice movement and some its leaders, read The Next Civil Rights Battle.