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NEA Representative Assembly Charts Course for Upcoming Year

Challenges and opportunities await

On the one hand, the new Obama Administration has proclaimed its intention to work with educators in the trenches to make great public schools—and seems to mean it.

On the other hand, tens of thousands of educators are getting pink slips, undoing years of work to improve staffing and cut class size.

It was in this best-of-times, worst-of-times environment that the 88th NEA Representative Assembly met in San Diego over the Fourth of July weekend.

And the delegates took on both the opportunities and the challenges, even before President Dennis Van Roekel formally opened the RA on July 3. On July 2, thousands of RA delegates crowded a “town hall” session to exchange ideas with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, leader of the Administration’s school reform efforts and also the man in control of unprecedented billions of dollars in Economic Recovery Act funds intended to save public schools from the crisis-driven plunge in state and local tax revenue.

Duncan and the delegates held a frank exchange of views on pay-for-performance and other controversial issues. “I don’t have all the answers,” Duncan told Anita Vanegas, a Fremont, California, teacher who spoke of the damage caused by the current extreme focus on test scores. “I hope we can come up with them collectively,” he added.

Duncan was invited by Van Roekel, who has been building a relationship with the secretary. In his keynote address the next day, Van Roekel told delegates that “building a good relationship does not mean we will agree on everything. That’s already clear. And frankly, I didn’t expect to.”

But he said that “this Administration has shown a willingness to listen, to remain open, to hear directly from educators.” Van Roekel called on delegates not to limit themselves to playing defense against budget cuts, but to seize the initiative in turning around low-performing schools and reaching for NEA’s goal of a great public school for every student.

“What drives me each day is the class of 2020. I imagine them all in a giant stadium—America’s future. And then the reality hits me hard: I can tell with pinpoint accuracy what will happen to them by 2020. Within two percentage points, I can tell you how many will drop out, how many will be incarcerated, how many will commit suicide, how many will be teen parents—if nothing changes.

“We cannot allow that. And we can’t wait until 2010 or 2015 to begin. We must begin today!”

Later in the RA, Van Roekel conferred NEA’s Friend of Education Award on Stanford University Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, a strong advocate for teacher-led reform. Darling-Hammond called for a “Marshall Plan” for educators, pointing out that other countries invest far more in quality pre-school and universal health care for children than does the United States.

The RA also heard from National Teacher of the Year Anthony Mullen, ESP of the year Kathie Axtell, and New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, who was chosen as America’s Greatest Education Governor.

During the four days of the RA, delegates and guests signed more than 10,000 postcards to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, calling on him to stop his efforts to slash school spending. California Teachers Association delegates delivered the mountain of cards to the governor’s San Diego office.

The delegates also took time on the last day for a tribute to retiring long-time NEA General Counsel Bob Chanin, who told them in a farewell address: “NEA and its affiliates must never lose sight of the fact that they are unions. And what unions do, first and foremost, is represent their members. If we do that, and if we do it well, the rest will fall into place.”

For more on the RA, visit

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