It’s hard to forget former National Education Association (NEA) General Counsel Bob Chanin’s farewell address during the 2009 NEA national convention. “It is not because we care about children; and it is not because we have a vision of a great public school for every child,” Chanin boasted. “The NEA and its affiliates are effective advocates because we have power.”
To kick off this year’s conference, the NEA had several plenary sessions from Monday through Wednesday in advance of the main convention. The sessions were designed to “explore actions that create stress—actions that foster such a tension that the people who scorn us will have to listen and will have to negotiate.”
The very first speaker at the NEA’s plenary session “State of the Union on Our Civil Rights” was Benjamin Todd Jealous, of the NAACP. (That’s the group whose chapter head in New York, Hazel Dukes, recently called a concerned parent a tool of “slave masters” for supporting her daughter’s local charter school in a NEA/NAACP lawsuit against charters.)
Plenary sessions also included the NEA’s Joint Conference on Concerns of Minorities and Women, where attendees were invited to learn about how “minority students are more than an abstraction or a political slogan—they are real children and young people with real hopes and dreams. How can we make sure education reform works for them and isn’t done to them?”
Of course, this is absolutely right. That’s why we support parental choice in education to put those students’ needs—not the needs of a failed system—first. But one has to wonder if the session included the objective, empirical analysis of charter schools, voucher programs, and school choice options across the country that shows that educational choice is doing more to increase the academic outcomes of poor and minority children than the failed status quo has ever accomplished. We’re not holding our breath.
Conference attendees also had the opportunity to attend discussions that were less focused on education. Attendees could learn about “Overcoming the Backlash to Minority Population Growth” and “Defeating Attacks on Educators and Union Rights.” The NEA also took the opportunity to use its national convention to train members in civil disobedience in defense of “union rights” with a session called “Civil Disobedience and Direct Action in the Cause of Social Justice.”
Having trouble figuring out what all of this has to do with the education of millions of American schoolchildren? You’re not alone. That’s because the interests of teachers unions are not necessarily aligned with the needs of students. The unions are political machines whose modus operandi is maintaining the inflated benefits and lifetime job security of their members.
But that often means opposing reforms that are in the best interests of children—reforms such as ending forced unionism (which Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker recently achieved), ending lifetime job security for underperforming teachers, linking pay to performance, and, of course, school choice. These reforms are in the best interests of students because they create an education system that is accountable to parents and taxpayers, better aligning the interests of all parties involved.
Sadly, the education unions’ foremost concern is not the needs of children. As former American Federation of Teachers president Al Shanker infamously quipped: “When school children start paying union dues, that’s when I’ll start representing the interests of school children.”
The NEA’s national convention highlights the fact that as a group, the education unions have misguided priorities. With some 3.2 million of their members in local schools as teachers and school support personnel, NEA leadership should not block reforms that are in the interests of schoolchildren.
Which is why it’s imperative that teachers are given a choice as to whether they must join the union and that parents be provided options about where they send their children to school. Until the union hold is broken, the education system—not children—will continue to work for the adults—i.e., politicians and public-sector employees who benefit from organized labor’s stranglehold. The NEA convention is a sad reminder of that.