NEA Convention: Beyond the Wall
posted at 9:30 pm on July 3, 2013 by Mike Antonucci
The National Education Association Representative Assembly opened today in front of 6,931 delegates – by far the lowest attendance since I began covering the convention back in 1998, when there were almost 10,000 delegates to debate the proposed national merger with the American Federation of Teachers.
The major event on the first day is always the keynote speech of the NEA president. This was the fifth one to be delivered by Dennis Van Roekel and his theme was “student-centered, union-led change.”
“For us – the current leaders in NEA – this is our defining moment,” he said, and cited Martin Luther King’s reference to the “fierce urgency of now.”
“We must act with that same urgency of now,” Van Roekel said, “because the struggle for equity in education has never been more urgent, and our members have never faced a greater series of threats. Our time is now. And it’s time for action!”
What action? Well, Van Roekel is tired of the others. Not these Others…
…though they seem to share similar characteristics. No, he means the others who interfere with teachers’ ownership of their profession, the others who define the debate on teacher quality, the others who force the union to become roadblocks to bad reforms, the others with no experience or expertise.
“Who are these people?” Van Roekel asked. After allowing that some are probably well meaning but misguided, he declared, “Others are not well meaning at all!”
They’re driven by ideology, or greed, or notoriety. How can they be stopped?
“We need to shift,” Van Roekel concluded, “shift from focusing on what we don’t want to focusing on what we do want.”
He called on the delegates to make policy decisions, not merely carry out someone else’s ideas.
“It will take courage for us to raise our hands today and show the nation that NEA, the largest labor union in the country, is committed to change,” he said, that we take responsibility for student success and that we will empower our members to make those changes.”
This call-to-arms is certainly appropriate under NEA’s current circumstances, but as I mentioned, this is Van Roekel’s fifth keynote speech. Last year he also railed about “plenty of people who are eager to offer advice — or worse, try to impose their ideas on our profession” and urged the delegates to “harness the strength of our association to take charge of the teaching profession.”
“Let us be the change we are waiting for,” he said.
Let us go back another year, to Van Roekel’s 2011 speech. “We want to move forward – and to do that, we can’t just defend against attacks. We must lead,” he said, adding, “The time for watching is over. It’s time to take responsibility for our profession.”
How about the 2010 speech? “I want to move past just fighting bad ideas, spending millions of dollars on ballot measures, and stopping lousy legislation only to define victory as staying where we are. The status quo is not acceptable!” he said.
Van Roekel told the delegates “the time to turn hope into action is now!” He called on them to “make 2010 our moment.”
“Let’s be willing to question the status quo – and that means questioning our own status quo,” he said.
Van Roekel’s first keynote speech as NEA president in 2009 sounded the same horn. He told the delegates “the status quo is not acceptable.”
He said, “if we don’t take advantage of this opportunity to transform public education right now, will we get another chance? For me the time is now – despite all the challenges – this is our time, our opportunity…. And we can’t wait until 2010 or 2015 to begin – We must begin now – we must begin TODAY!”
It will be as long a time for NEA to alter the status quo as it will for the 300-mile long, 700-foot high ice wall it has built around public education to come crashing down. But the free folk are waiting beyond the wall. And winter is coming.