National Education Association Ends 147th Annual Meeting... A critical summary of the NEA RA
The NEA Representative Assembly Last Day---Day 6:
The Falling Sky, Saviors, and What to Do? By Rich Gibson
The largest union in the USA, the National Education Association (NEA), ended its annual representative assembly in San Diego on July 7, 2009. In the middle of the greatest economic crisis in 60 years, a crisis that is coming to their own schools and the homes and families of their students every day, what did they do when they met?
They are, of course, nearly all teachers. The sky fell. They confused that with a glorious morning dawn. A few disagreed. They were, politely and graciously, set aside — not quite put in time-out, but told they just had things wrong.
Six million people lost their jobs in the USA in the last eight months. The Dow Jones Industrial Average (one of the ways the economy is measured in the USA) is jolting up and down around 8000 — down from 14,164 in late 2007. Virtually all of the other stock exchanges across the planet have shown similar declines or worse.
GM and Chrysler are government entities with more than one-half of their remaining manufacturing jobs in the USA lost or exported (on orders of their new owners, the US Government). New auto workers earn less than 50 per cent of what their seniors make, with marginal benefits. At least $12.9 Trillion was printed by the U.S. government. Much of it went for the bankers of the USA, with no accountability, underlining the dominance of finance capital over industrial giants.
Wars in Iraq and Afghaniestan
The US was fought to a standstill by a disorganized unprepared enemy in Iraq, where troops will remain in perpetuity. NEA’s nation is pouring soldiers into the black hole of empires, the Afghan region. Everywhere, children of the poor go off to kill children of the poor, on behalf of the rich in their homelands. Not to recognize the government as an executive committee and armed weapon of the rich, the economy as capitalist reigning over democracy at every turn, to reject the reality of the corporate state, to pretend schools are something other than missions for capitalism and most educators its missionaries, is to fantasize. The education agenda is a war agenda.
Why support the Obama "education plan"?
The Obama education stimulus is a merit pay stimulus, a pay-for-performance plan, an unprecedented privatization plan, and a charter school creation plan — based on doling out money to states, districts, and schools that do what they are told.
In every state, massive education cuts loom or are in effect while freedom to teach well to specific children evaporates as quickly as it did under the hallucinogenic Bush regime. Money immediately printed for financiers is not printed for education. Merit pay, value added education, is the logical project of those who touted regulated curricula and racist high-stakes exams. One necessarily follows the other. Some school districts are in ruins, Detroit for example is laying off at least 20 per cent of its staff while kids shoot each other in schools. Other systems guarantee layoffs to thousands of young school workers: California. Fear invades every aspect the daily life of schooling, fear of failure, fear of joblessness, fear of bosses, fear of reason itself.
NEA's 'Strategic Plan and Budget'
NEA has a “Strategic Plan and Budget,” submitted to the RA. It claims to connect strategy to money — a estimable idea on the face of it. The strategic plan, however, holds no analysis of our current condition, none, hence no grasp of why things are as they are.
It devolves into a $355,799,933 budget reflecting a series of disjointed second-tier tactics, concluding with a projected expenditure of $31,365,437 on electoral work. Add $4,391,999 for research to back up electoral plans (the real total will surely to be far more if we take into consideration hours of staff work, thousands of volunteers, etc.). And $4,269,681 is earmarked for “Education International,” one of several NEA links to the National Endowment for Democracy which works outside the US, destabilizing leftist indigenous movements. Another $168,616 is aimed at “labor outreach, “labor union partnerships,” meaning deals with the AFL-CIO and AFT.
An illusory strategy
It is, in a sense, a strategy—a illusory strategy created by hucksters who want NEA members to believe their dues dollars are going for something other than selling their minds and labor to the state and its owners.
It’s a patronage scheme, a money raiser for a what C. Wright Mills long ago called a “garrison economy.” Some school workers noticed at least aspects of the sky falling. Some teachers, often a minority, actually count — and they can have a terrific impact in a de-industrialized society where the central organizing aspect of many people’s lives is school. Forty-nine million children are in public schools, about one-third of them draft-eligible in the next three years. An organized group of class-conscious educators could have a big impact on them. There was not much of that at the Representative Assembly.
Transparency in NEA executive pay? No way!
A group of curious delegates moved to learn the salaries of their elected officers, carefully omitted in most of the otherwise detailed budget reports (mistated in the “Strategic Plan”). Their assembled colleagues voted them down on day 6, choosing not to know. Their specific question is easy to answer with a search in the NEA filings to the Labor Department, LMR-2's. NEA fought the labor regulation for years but, because they represent some private sector workers, they must file now. NEA president Dennis Van Roekel (“DVR” or just “Dennis” to most delegates, though “Mr Van Roekel” to a few) will make more than his predecessor in real wages (including benefits and a generous expense account that is hard to gauge). He’ll be over $445,869 easily — working for a union that represents thousands of people who live and work in trailers (the figure corrects an earlier typo). That places him in the top five percent of wage earners in the US.
Labor Notes estimated in 2007 that NEA could save $25,497,250 if the union capped salaries at $100 thousand. That, however, is only the easy part. The salaries to other officers ignore the lavish lifestyle that executive committee members enjoy; free luggage to four star hotels and all in between, quickly alienating them from the rank and file, associating them with people whose prime concern is the location of the next great golf course. Tania Kappner, a radical from the small Trotskyist "By Any Means Necessary" group and delegate who has persisted for more than a decade in struggling to convey some semblance of anti-racist solidarity to NEA representative assemblies brought New Business Item 72: “The NEA will publicize our support for the call that public schools become sanctuaries where immigrant students and workers with and without papers can get an education or work without harassment from Immigration Customs Enforcement. To this effect we encourage school districts and college/university administrators to adopt policies that instruct staff not to aid ICE investigations, detentions, and deportations.” Fifty delegates signed the motion to get it to body.
You can tell when NEA officialdom really hates a motion and wants to kill it at birth; they drag out retiring rule-of-capitalist-property-laws bulldog attorney Bob Chanin to quote chapter and verse. In this case, lawyer Chanin, supporting NEA president Dennis Van Roekel’s ruling that the motion was out of order, said, “the motion encourages school districts to engage in illegal activity...our members would face potential felony charges....” That was that. There was no substantive discussion of the motion, nor any recognition that districts, teachers, and administrators actually do this all the time, out of kindness sometimes, in order to get per-capita funding other times. The motion was killed The sky fell. ICE raids continue, attacking people desperate for work because of US policies elsewhere, breaking up families, and the education family decided not to talk about it. They did give the president of the Kentucky Education Association a chance to urge delegates and others to “drink for the children,” and donate to the “bourbon caucus,” which also urges gambling “for the children.” The logic is explained by, “the NEA supported the lotteries you know.” It’s never followed by the fact that little of the lottery money gets to schools. The Louisiana Association of Educators (much of the south rejects the too-union sound of, say, California Teachers Association) did get time to present a video touting the location of the next RA, New Orleans, a place to “raise the roof, we’re open to anything,” eat, drink, and gamble. Not a mention of Katrina. No note of another miracle of schooling proclaimed by Chicago’s ex-boss Paul Vallas, who educates by extinguishing the public from public education. What sky falling? Come have a blast. The core issue of our time is the interaction rising, deadly, inequality and the potential of mass class-conscious resistance. NEA will have none of that. NEA’s leaders firmly believe in what former NEA President Bob Chase called, “New Unionism: the unity of business, labor leaders and government, in the national interest.” That means NEA puts all of that, a perfect description of the core of Mussolini’s corporate state, ahead of the working class, educators and the people school workers serve. NEA, rejecting the reality of class war, can’t notice the profound escalation of school segregation, first by class, then by race, nationality, language, etc–while NEA’s leadership clings to moral high ground by promoting internal affirmative action efforts which, for the most part, merely colorizes sellouts. NEA ignores the economic stratification of every aspect of schools, results of high-stakes exams to quality of playgrounds. NEA did forge a make-believe agenda. Take, for example, New Business Item B, adopted.
“The NEA will review and revise where appropriate the NEA action plan for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). NEA urges Congress and the Obama Administration to enact new federal educational policy with a new name. Legislation is needed that embodies the spirit of the original ESEA under President Lyndon Johnson which focused on equitable programs and funding for the education of poor children in America. The NEA will support a plan that moves beyond a "one-size fits all" model of accountability and provides support to schools serving our most at-risk students. Additional consideration should be given to expanding the support of both urban and rural poor children beyond education programs by connecting community services and resources to negate the effects of poverty on learning as well as recognition of the additional needs of English Language Learners.”
What this says, really, is that the NEA backs Obama and Arne Duncan. Echoing the marketing roots of many of his closest advisors, Arne Duncan has proclaimed that the main problem with No Child Left Behind was that it had become a tarnished brand.
A bad brand. So Duncan is not proposing getting rid of the content of No Child Left Behind. He simply wants to "rebrand" it.
That’s the practice. The sky fell and NEA’s delegates decided it is time for saviors: Obama and DVR, together as one; plus the ubiquitous slogan of the convention: “Hope Starts Here.”
The new Cult of Personality: Obama and the NEA's Leader
Late in the day, Carol Crowder, an outgoing NEA officer, connected Obama and DVR directly, then said, “DVR is the closest thing to perfect I’ve ever seen.”
Applause. Once again not attending in person, Barack Obama sent the delegates a video with the usual opening kudos for the marks: “Thanks Dennis for your friendship and NEA for your hard work in the last month. Thanks for your support on the Recovery Act..."
(now paraphrasing)..thousands of teachers will stay on the job. Education is the civil rights issue of our generation. Countries that out educate us, out-compete us. We must hold all schools accountable with high standards, have a national strategy against dropouts. I thank you for working with Arne Duncan (education secretary) and I share a deep respect for you as we work together to prepare the students to come....”
The assembled throng leaped from their seats in shouting applause — for eyewash from a demagogue. I’ll call that reserved hysteria. Reserved because they are, after all, teachers. There was action, or its pretense. About 100 California Teacher Association delegates marched on the offices of Governor Swarzenegger very early in the morning of day 6. They delivered what their president, David Sanchez, said was 10,000 cards signed by people opposed to his education cuts. Odd. There are about 1100 California delegates in the convention, and more friends. The assembly was not told about the march until after it happened, long after it was reported in the press. The demonstration was simulated action, a tiny spectacle carefully managed. Postcards to the Gropenfuhrer? That will not fix him.
The state is at least $30 billion in debt. CTA refuses to say, “Tax the rich.” At the close of the RA, around 6:20, Sanchez announced the march was long done and thanked DVR and NEA for their help in CTA’s struggle to pass what was a tax scheme to dun poor and working people, not the rich and corporations, to save school workers’ jobs.
That plan was rejected by about 2/3 of the voters–and many NEA members. NEA and CTA paid out, officially, about $12.2 million in the campaign. One California staff person, an executive director who asked not to be named, told me the real figure is closer to $20 million.
In either case, the project convinced many voters, especially educators’ most crucial allies, that the education union sees them as stupid, enemies. Lawyer Bob Chanin (pronounced Shannon) on retiring, offered a lengthy and analytical farewell. In it, he traced the development of NEA from an association to a union, underlining again what is a key but unspoken project of NEA’s leadership – the merger of the AFT, AFL-CIO, and NEA. The upshot of that will be to ensnare school workers inside a far less democratic structure and to inject educator monies into the ever-more-bankrupt AFL-CIO which organizes nobody, displays only solidarity between its top leaders against the rank and file of all unions, and divides workers far more than it unites them. It will also pour NEAmoney into the bankrupt treasury of the AFL-CIO. And guarantee some NEA governance jobs for life. For the first time, the AFL-CIO had a booth at the RA, distributed a glossy red, white and blue, pamphlet, “AFL-CIO-NEA Solidarity Partnership,” saying, “For decades the NEA and AFL-CIO have shared values and a commitment to economic and social justice for all, resting on the foundation of high, quality and universal public education. Both organizations are fiercely democratic and committed to developing diverse organizational leadership teams.” Not a word of that is true. The NEA and AFL-CIO (and its American Federation of Teachers) fought each other for decades. The AFL-CIO’s predominantly private sector unions routinely lobby against taxes for schools and public works. The AFL-CIO is fiercely anti-democratic, especially true of AFT. Leaders of each of these groups are quislings in the ranks of workers.
The Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) and the NEA
In line with the AFL-CIO, the RA delegates passed, overwhelmingly, New Business Item 82, a motion to “promote and publicize the importance of the Employee Free Choice Act.” The printed rationale says, “many of our members are not well informed about how the EFCA may impact them. It is the responsibility of the NEA to educate them.”
Few delegates knew any more about EFCA when they voted than they did before. Simply put, EFCA would make it easier to gin people into unions. It’s a one-sided view to see that as good. NEA’s brass is not about to explain that the AFL-CIO and the splinter group, Change to Win, have plenty of reasons why they cannot organize people. They are corrupt to the core, undemocratic, don’t believe that workers and employers have contradictory interests, and when push comes to shove, will use violence against their own members to, “protect the contract,” that is, protect their dues income which can be cut by employers (Henry Ford said, in glee, “you mean I am the union’s banker?”) in the event of wildcat strikes. When workers join unions, they add a layer of enemies. NEA honored lawyer Chanin with t-shirts, a white caricature on blue background, that looked far more like Bullwinkle than Chanin. Beach balls flew a bit earlier, before noon, on day 6, and people not only exercised (oh for an NEA exercise plan, so sorely needed by so many delegates) but napped in the aisles. It was a long, dreary, RA.
Linda Darling Hammond and the NEA
Stanford professor Linda Darling Hammond, docent in the museum of capitalist education, accepted an NEA award, and urged another key RA theme on delegates: “We are all in this together,” even “across party lines.”
Hammond is one of many liberals who still promotes the hysteria around Obama, marching people right into the corporate state of nationalized banks, industries, and perpetual war. She wants a Marshall Plan for teachers, “a purposeful policy agenda like those in high-achieving nations.”
Perhaps, like so many people in colleges of education, she has no sense of the history of where the Marshall Plan came from, nor its motivation. Or perhaps she does as she sees education, like Arne Duncan, as key to national competitiveness. Hammond did suggest “we leave the factory model behind,” but fails to grasp there are many factory models—all exploitative. Mis-leaders like this should look about, recognize that they contribute to organized decay, not the class -conscious resistance that is desperately needed in schools and out, and spend a year in self-critique, wondering why they cannot grasp why things are as they are. Hammond noted that California prisons spend more per capita than the schools do. She did not say that the guards are members of the AFL-CIO. Enforcement officers are significant in the union.
Hammond complained that “we must...close the opportunity gap,” without asking why such a gap, really booming inequality, exists. Say, “capitalism.”
She hawked the National Board for Teaching Standards, and board-certified teachers, as well as teacher prep, without noting that colleges of education can be defined in the last decade as driven by opportunism, racism, sheer ignorance, and cowardice, producing a teaching force that, even before NCLB, existed conducted the child abuse that is frantic high-stakes testing. At what point do people become what they do?
I suppose one does not spit into the hand that gives you an award. But if Hammond wants to say, as she did, “No man is good enough to govern another man (sic) without that man's consent. Better die free than live slave,” she might ask what role NEA plays in voluntary servitude.
One delegate (whose name I did not catch) complained from the floor that 342 teachers had read the Declaration of Independence on video, wanting it shown to the body. DVR explained they had done it with such poor audio quality, it couldn’t be aired–a real shame. But there was no shortage of patriotism at the RA. There never is. The assembly lined up with the Obama plan for education in every way. Relatively meaningless New Business Items that passed will, in sum, cost $493,883 (it’s a part of NEA culture to cost out some things in the open and, as with salaries, to duteously go blind). Perhaps part of refusing to see the fallen sky is the idea that you can’t do anything about it. School workers typically underestimate their potential, particularly elementary educators who not only help set up a child’s entire world view, but who play the key babysitting role that corporations rely on from the tax-based schools, a tax system that charges poor and working people most. When school strikes begin, among the first people to complain are business owners who employ the parents of elementary school kids. Then come the owners of shops around middle schools. Hope, though, may spring from football. Football programs are never closed by strikes. That goes too far.
Strikes not on the agenda and the gap between leaders and others
The idea of school strikes, or more significantly organizing to control work site and communities, would place NEA at odds with the Obama blueprint for education. As all of “Hope Starts Here,” is based upon nothing but that design, real organizing is lost inside NEA. Most of the organizing staff, who led the teacher wars of the seventies and eighties (battles not only with school districts but between NEA and the American Federation of Teachers) are retired. Few people in top NEA positions are from states that have collective bargaining laws, or strike.
Nevertheless, many delegates who spoke to me recognized a gap between themselves and the NEA leadership.
They oppose merit pay, in particular, and are, at the very least, annoyed by imposed standards and high-stakes exams.
Beyond that, three Washington state delegates who spoke anonymously described to me in some detail how their training as educators, mostly Whole Language, and their daily life in their schools are completely contradictory. This frustration would seem to offer an opening to those who seek to make sense of why schooling in a country promising its youth the military or bad jobs, and the world perpetual war, is as it is.
And, sometimes, reality intrudes. Layoffs, increases in class size, benefit cuts, more exams, less freedom— all that is inevitable in the absence of organized struggle.
It is abundantly clear that organization will not emanate out from NEA’s leadership. While it may be important to have one toe inside NEA and its assembly, it is more important to have nine toes out.
Throughout the convention, top elected leaders occupied the stage behind Van Roekel, well-coiffed, little more than stage props, usually dressed in suits, unlike the rank and file. They are elected on the thinnest of platforms. Here’s a statement from Greg Johnson, a winner in the race for NEA Executive Committee: “Association leaders need to work to unite the many voices of NEA so that we are at the forefront of educational reform while ensuring that the Mission, Vision, and Core Values we hold so dear remain steadfast.” There’s an analytical tub-thumper.
Secretary Treasurer Becky Pringle announced that 8,925 people registered as delegates along with 7,063 non-delegates, nearly 16,000 people spending lots of money in San Diego, which didn’t send a reporter to cover the largest union in the USA. One New Jersey delegate had to take out a loan against her pension to attend. About 30 percent of the delegates were ethnic minorities. NEA keeps track. The NEA Pac Fund raised “$183.54 per delegate and a total of $1,625, 289.47 over the year. NEA keeps track. “With these resources we can elect pro-education candidates,” said Pringle. Like who? Arne Duncan? Ted “NCLB” Kennedy? California’s George Miller? All are recipients of NEA money. All enemies of education. The Political Action Fund of NEA announced thatSue Murray Chapman of California won $25,000 for contributing to the RA and being there at the end. Merit pay.
When all the new business complete, the tearful farewells from outgoing Executive Committee members (“I visited 46 states in my time inside Camelot”) done, and promises of better days from incoming ones finished, the assembled leaders were treated to a video of themselves repeating,
“Hope Starts with Barack and Duncan,”
“Hope Starts with Me,”
“Hope Starts With Us.”
Their images were surrounded by floating red, white, and blue stars and bunting. So, what was up and what to do?
NEA is a capitalist union operating inside capitalist schools within a capitalist nation in a profound crisis of lost wars and a ruined economy. The sky fell. NEA held a deadening, unimaginative, girdled convention that, most likely, served to convince delegates of the efficacy of Dennis Van Roekel, Barack Obama and Arne Duncan in particular and the sham promise of America in general. Many delegates are alienated from parts of their leaders’ schemes, from merit pay to national standards to “accountability,” plans, to militarization, but they do not connect that to a greater whole and thus become unwitting instruments of their own oppression–and in the case of educators, others’ too, a redoubled tragedy.
Education, as Arne Duncan, Barack Obama, and even George W Bush know well, is pivotal to social mastery. Control of the education system through the tradition routes of divide and conquer (merit pay), carrots and sticks (test scores), degrees (national standards), respectability (Hammond), habit, fear, cajoling, and hierarchy, is predictable, easily seen, and only combated by the combination of solidarity and equality. All rise with all.
What to do? Connect reason (the analysis of class war) to power (organization and education) to passion (what we do matters) to direct action (job actions to freedom schooling to how about we storm the stage?). In that context, we need to resurrect an ethic that drove every social movement for equality and justice. Here are four resistance ethics worth restoring to life:
* We are responsible for our own histories, if not our birthrights.
* Solidarity and equality; an injury to one only goes before an injury to all.
* It is wrong to exploit other people.
* Justice demands organization and action where it counts. It's right to rebel.
People will fight back because they will have to fight back in order to live.
At issue is whether sense will be made of the resistance. Will protestors demand a shorter work week with no cut in pay, the end of foreclosures and evictions, free health care for all, an end to education for domination, or will people, in the midst of a confusing social collapse, demand more troops on the streets as we see in the border cities of Mexico, strangling in the grips of drug gangs?
Will the example of striking Honduran teachers, who shut down their schools nationwide against the coup (never mentioned in the RA), influence educators in the US, or students?
First resistance may come from students who have had contact with a few thinking teachers. As hope (a vital function of school, real or false) evaporates, students may rise. They will need considerable support, and the notion that their struggle is a workers' struggle as well.
France 1968 is evidence enough. Lost wars. Bankrupt economy. Massive unemployment. Evictions. Collapsing health care and educational systems. Rising expectations shattered. Everything is at hand for a full rearrangement of the social relations of daily life— except an organized, class-conscious left. That’s what’s to do. Now.
For those of us who have attended NEA-RA’s since 1984, it was moving to see Bob Chanin gavel the 147th convention to a close for the last time at 6:53. See, ya. Next year, New Orleans.