NEA President Dennis Van Roekel delivers 2010 NEA RA Keynote

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel delivers his keynote address at the 2010 RA. Image: NEA Public Relations

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel delivered his keynote address to more than 8,100 delegates at the 2010 NEA Representative Assembly (NEA RA) in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Calling the time since the last NEA RA meeting a “tough year”, Van Roekel admitted to being inspired by the historic inauguration of Barak Obama.

“Yes, we were ready for change, and we had hope.” said Van Roekel. “A few things got in the way of that hope and the change.”

He went on to cite the economic crisis, a “freefall of confidence in American institutions” and “the way the politics of anger distorted the politics of promise.”

President Van Roekel exemplified the consequences of what he termed an “uncertain future”, including:

  • Simultaneous tax cuts and education budget cuts in New Jersey
  • The combined effects of $4 billion worth of budget cuts in California
  • Massive cuts to higher education, ESP positions

Van Roekel lamented the incomplete status of the Education Jobs Bill, sent to the US Senate by a House vote last Thursday.  Noting that it was the same Congress that saved the auto industry, bailed out Wall Street and the “too big to fail banks”, President Van Roekel called on the Senate to act, saying “If ever there was evidence of upside-down priorities—this is it!”

Van Roekel deemed legislation passed by policymakers in Louisiana, Colorado and Florida designed to “disrespect educators, trample employee rights” passed under the guise of “education reform”.

“Forces are at work telling governors and state legislators that public school employees should be denied pension plans because they are making us rich!” he said.

“Rich? Is being middle class in America now the definition of being rich?” asked Van Roekel, to more than 8,000 cheering delegates.

Defining the responses of Tennessee and Delaware state affiliates to Race to the Top (RttT) “the best possible”, he lauded the two state affiliates for being at the table to shape their state RttT proposals.

While President Van Roekel complimented the Obama administration’s efforts to fund education, he also voiced member concerns about a perceived disconnect between the needs of educators and current federal education policy and its effects on struggling students.

Van Roekel called the money attached to the School Improvement Grant (SIG) program “vital to our at-risk students”, but decried the resulting chaos found in states throughout the nation. He criticized the RttT and SIG’s short planning time and the challenge they posed to negotiated agreements .

Referencing the education promises made by President Obama on the campaign trail in 2008, Van Roekel agreed and cautioned Obama, saying “Your instincts were right—the path your advisors have laid out is not.”

“Our members feel betrayed,” said President Van Roekel, “and so do I!”

Calling on delegates to take back NEA’s place as America’s educational leaders, Van Roekel cited historical examples of what he called “game-changing moments”.

“My friends,” he said, “let’s make 2010 our moment.”

President Van Roekel announced NEA’s upcoming National Summit on Family, School and Community Engagement. Planned for September, the summit will bring national educational leaders, faith-based, civil rights and social service groups to one table. The group’s mission will to do a better job “keeping kids in school and keeping families engaged with their schools.”

Setting his sights on the upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), Van Roekel exclaimed “If they take the old NCLB, fancy it up and call it the new ESEA, I think we ought to just call it TNT and blow the whole damn thing up!”

Van Roekel advised delegates that there would be a postcard waiting for each of them in their state caucus meetings on July 4th.

“I am asking you to write three things you don’t want in ESEA and three things that must be included,” he said. “We will deliver all 9,000 postcards to the Secretary of Education.”

The NEA President also called on each of the state affiliate presidents to implement a day of action between July and September to send a message to Congress regarding the pending ESEA reauthorization.

“There are only 535 of them,” said the former high school math teacher. “And they are the ones who will decide what happens to ESEA. Do the math, there are 3.2 million of us, 6,000 for each member of Congress. We can and will influence the outcome.”

President Van Roekel called for significant changes to be included in the new version of ESEA. These changes include: to not require competition for resources, meet the needs of every students, close achievement gaps, removing AYP and to replace “the pass-fail testing system with a system of multiple measures and a focus on student growth.”

He reaffirmed the importance of NEA’s political action, saying “If we are not activists in politics, we will be the victims of politics.” Promising to stand up in support of elected leaders who have helped the NEA with their words and deeds, he also delivered a warning to elected leaders who do not join NEA’s fight for students and great public schools.

“Do not take us for granted,” cautioned Van Roekel.

 “If we are angry about what others do to us and how they do it, if we believe that those who are on the front lines know better than those shouting from the outside, then shouldn’t we figure out how to take charge of our profession?” asked an energized Van Roekel.

The NEA President then called for the creation of the NEA Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching. According to Van Roekel, the commission will focus on opportunities that include greater union involvement in teacher training, induction and licensure, evaluation and professional development. The Commission will issue a public report and NEA will bring recommendations to the RA in 2011 for policy implementation.

President Van Roekel issued an invitation to those that accuse the NEA of obstructionism and defenders of the status quo to visit schools throughout the country where true collaborative efforts between the union and administrators have resulted in dramatic increases in student achievement.

“Vision without action is just a dream,” said Van Roekel, concluding his speech. “Action without vision just passes the time. But vision with action can change the world!”