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NEA RA Sets Sights on Leaders

Delegates elect a new NEA President and recommend a presidential candidate.

Delegates chose Dennis Van Roekel as President-elect at NEA's 2008 Representative Assembly, which met this summer in Washington, D.C.

Excitement over the potential for big changes in the No Child Left Behind law (NCLB) and other federal education policies after the fall elections pumped up delegates, who channeled their energy into setting policy for the year.

They voted overwhelmingly to recommend Sen. Barack Obama for U.S. President. Obama addressed the convention via satellite from Montana, where he was campaigning on the Fourth of July.

He pledged support for full funding of Title I and special education. And he said the nation should tell students,

"If you commit your life to teaching, America will commit to paying for your college education."

That idea resonated especially with NEA Student Program members. Wearing "Got Tuition?" T-shirts, they were gathering videotaped tales of woe about student debt throughout the convention.

Obama noted that his sister is a teacher. "I know how hard she works," he said. "You're the people who stay past the last bell, spend your own money on books and supplies, and go beyond the call of duty….I'm tired of hearing teachers blamed for our problems."

Obama's attitude was in marked contrast with the approach of the current Administration, which has so far declared 28 percent of America's schools to be failing, regardless of the challenges they face trying to engage students who live in poverty, can't speak the language they are tested in, and in many cases don't even come to school. President Bush's first Secretary of Education, Rod Paige, called NEA a terrorist organization. His second, Margaret Spellings, declared that NCLB is "99.9 percent pure" like Ivory soap.

Obama, on the other hand, declared NEA's comprehensive proposal on the federal role in education, released during the RA, to be "a roadmap for educators, elected officials, policymakers, and all who care deeply about the future of our children to consider and debate."

That roadmap was distributed to RA delegates with an appeal from outgoing NEA President Reg Weaver to take its message home to parents and community groups and build grassroots support for change. The proposal calls on the federal government to:

  • Support the profession of teaching as a desired field of study and practice.
  • Guarantee full funding for Title I and special education.
  • Promote equal access and opportunity for all students.
  • Help states develop authentic accountability systems for schools using multiple measures.
  • Establish a federal education research institute free from political interference.
  • Provide a clearinghouse for best practices to help states improve school.                                   

The delegates also debated and decided a wide range of policy matters such as:

  • Health care—NEA will be active in the growing effort to extend health coverage to all, especially children.
  • Cell phones—NEA supports regulating their use in schools.
  • High-stakes graduation tests—NEA will gather and disseminate information on the impact of these tests.

This year's Friend of Education award went to NASA Educator Astronaut Barbara Morgan, an elementary school teacher from Idaho, who accepted it on behalf of everyone in the hall because, she explained, "Everyone here is a friend of education." Morgan brought along packets of basil seeds that flew with her on the space shuttle. NASA wants students and teachers across the country to experiment with the seeds as part of research on growing food during long space flights. (Click here to find out how you can get some for your class.)

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen
Photo: Rick Runion

The 2008 Teacher of the Year, NEA member Michael Geisen of Washington State, spoke of LTW02.jpg the disconnect between the view from 30,000 feet that U.S. Department of Education officials seem to have of America's students—"identical little ants"—and what he sees on the ground level—"unique and beautiful human beings."

The NEA ESP of the Year, Milwaukee school safety assistant Laura Vernon, delivered a poe m entitled "When Did We Become the Enemy," which had the Assembly up on its feet cheering.

The delegates elected new national leaders including Executive Committee members Princess Moss, president of the Virginia Education Association; Len Paolillo, chair of the NEA Committee on Legislation; and former Executive Committee member Becky Pringle, who will be Secretary-Treasurer. Pringle led the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Advisory Committee, which wrote NEA's Positive Agenda for the ESEA Reauthorization.

Former Secretary-Treasurer Lily Eskelsen was chosen to take office as Vice President September 1, the same day Vice President Van Roekel becomes President. Both were elected without opposition.

Van Roekel told the Assembly the cause of change is dissatisfaction, and "I can tell you, in 2008, I am not satisfied.

"I am not satisfied with a public education system that allows close to 50 percent of young African-American and Hispanic males not to get through school.

"And I am not satisfied that some children in this nation go to a school that is beautiful and well-equipped and modern in every way, and others go to a building that screams that society does not care about you.

"I hope every single one of you leaves this RA gloriously dissatisfied. I hope it gnaws deep down inside you so that you say, 'I can't stand it another moment!'

"The richest, most powerful nation in the world cannot provide for its children. Cannot provide health care, cannot provide education. Something is wrong, it needs to change."

RA delegates cheered for new leaders—including (at right) NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen, and (top center) NEA Secretary-Treasurer Becky Pringle—and a new day in Washington.

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