NEA and AFT Convention Convene: Teachers Reflect on the Present and Plan for an Uncertain Future

The 9,000 National Education Association (NEA) delegates have arrived in Denver for the annual Representative Assembly and next week the 3,000 delegates to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) will convene in Los Angeles for their biannual convention.

For over 150 years the NEA has meet over the 4th of July weekend, the delegates sit by state wearing their state colors, listen to speeches, vote on items and will elect their new president.

Stephen Sawchuck, from Education Week has described the organizations and will write and blog from both conventions.

You might ask: Why two teacher organizations? Wouldn’t they be more powerful if they merged into one organization representing all teachers?

After years of on and off discussions the presidents of both organizations agreed on a framework for a merger, which was voted down by NEA members. The NEA is run by the staffs of the state organizations who were concerned that a merger would weaken their hold on the organization; the argument from the state organizations, “You’d become a union member instead of remaining as a professional.” I wonder if they feel the same way fifteen years later?

Sawchuck describes the internal AFT as being driven by political caucuses, while technically accurate the current leadership of the AFT, the 43 Executive Board members, who belong to differing caucuses in their home local, operate by consensus, the AFT is driven by elected leaders, not the staff. Michael Mulgrew (UFT), Karen Lewis (Chicago), Alex Caputo-Pearl (Los Angeles, Richard Stutman (Boston, Barbara Bowen (PSC, among others, are a cohesive and really smart group of teacher leaders.

The AFT membership is concentrated in the large cities, Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Detroit, Washington DC, Chicago, Miami, LA, San Francisco as well as college locals, nurses, health care professionals and last month workers at the United Nations became affiliated with the AFT.

The convention sets the direction of the organization for the next two years by passing resolutions, listens to speeches (this year California Governor Jerry Brown among others), celebrates its successes, highlights programs and tries to garner a week of “national ink” in the world of media.

Any local union can submit a resolution (a string of “Whereas” statements followed by a “Resolved” statement), this year ninety-one resolutions were submitted. All delegates can choose to serve on one of the thirteen committees that discuss the resolutions, sort of a mini-convention: amend, approve or reject the proposed resolutions and prioritize the resolutions for floor debate. The committees range from Education Issues and Political Issues (hundreds of members each) to Nurses, Civil and Human Rights, Pensions, International Issues, etc., with 100 or so members each. The debate is frequently passionate. The committee decides the top three resolutions for floor debate. (Transparency: I serve as chair of the International Issues Committee – this year resolutions deal with The Ukraine, Trade Policy, Collective Bargaining Rights for UN Employees, Ending US Militarized Foreign Policy and a few others). Some resolutions are submitted by the Executive Council, the 43-member governing board of the AFT.

There are two resolutions on the Common Core – a lengthy resolution submitted by the Executive Council, (“Real Accountability for Equity and Excellence in Public Education”) and a resolution submitted by the Chicago Teachers Union (“Oppose the Common Core State Standards”).

The Executive Council three-page plus resolution includes, “AFT will support action against state and local policies that misuse VAM, student growth percentiles and similar methodologies and other test data for high stakes decision-making” and the brief CTU resolution states, “The Chicago Teachers Union opposes the Common Core State Standards (and the aligned tests) as a framework for teaching and learning;” should be quite an interesting debate.

The top three resolutions from each committee come to the floor, there are six or eight microphone stations around the floor and delegates line up to speak – three minutes in the limelight!! Delegates can introduce amendments to alter, clarify or change resolutions, eventually debate is closed and the 3,000 delegates raise their hands, or stand for a count.

While the local presidents and delegations come from different caucuses in their home locals the Executive Council is far more issue-oriented. The tent is broad and there is a wide magnanimity – the Executive Council resolutions reflect the voices of all sections of AFT leadership; occasionally there are “agreements to disagree,” resolutions come to the floor with locals having opposing points of view.

This year hanging over the convention are the two major court decisions, the Vergara lower court decision in California ending tenure, which will lumber through the California appellate courts and Harris v Quinn, the Supreme Court decision limiting agency-fee payers in limited circumstances. I’m sure both decisions will be discussed and well as the key issue: the November 2014 elections. While teachers are livid about the many, many antagonistic comments and policies coming out of the Obama White House and Department of Education Republican victories could tip the Senate to the Republicans – and we’d see an avalanche of anti-union legislation, a la Wisconsin.

And, of course, the “elephant in the room,” the 2016 race for the White House: I did check out the Hillary Book Tour, just in case!!!

The future of public education and the role of teacher unions are at a crossroads. For some the backlash against federal interventions presages a return to local control, to others the assault will increase the push for charters schools, vouchers limitations on the ability to organize, and the erosion of the power of teacher unions. The future depends upon your lens: in Chicago the mayor continues to close schools, layoff teachers and erode the pension system, the Philadelphia public system is falling apart, as is the Newark system, Los Angeles remains deeply underfunded and New York City glows with a new contract and a mayor who applauds teachers and their unions.

Four years ago in Seattle Bill Gates, who I’m told is at the high end of the Asperger spectrum gave a strange vaguely pro-teacher speech while at the same tine he continued to fund a wide range of organizations that are attacking teacher unions. Two years ago the convention met in Detroit – a lively upbeat convention in a city that never recovered from the 1967 riots and a city in default.

Four days of a kaleidoscopic view of education.

I’ll try and blog from steamy, smoggy Los Angeles.


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