The National Education Association (NEA) is aiming to change its defensive reputation and mobilize its state and local partners to address concerns about the quality of public schools in the United States. This mission was the main focus of a two-day conference organized by the NEA’s Center for the Advancement of Public Education. Attended by 250 elected officials and staff members from NEA affiliates across the country, as well as leaders from the American Federation of Teachers, the conference explored strategies to engage the public in improving education.
Established in 1993 as the Center for the Preservation of Public Education, the center renamed itself last year to align with the union’s priorities. While the center still monitors legislative activities related to vouchers, charter schools, parental rights, and private education services, it also aims to help members form broad coalitions in support of public education.
Sheila Simmons, the director of the center, emphasized the need to shift from defensive battles to proactive organizing. To address the issue of school quality, the NEA started reevaluating its approach in January 1995, recognizing that it had become self-contained and needed to listen to opposing viewpoints. Evelyn Temple, an assistant executive director of the NEA, stated that the union leaders concluded that the NEA held significant influence but lacked an outward focus.
The union’s efforts align with President Bob Chase’s vision of reinvention for the NEA. In his speech at the conference, Chase urged union leaders to consider new ways of doing business and avoid solely focusing on opposing measures such as vouchers, privatization, and weak charter laws. Chase emphasized the importance of articulating what the union supports and encouraged leaders to prioritize the improvement of schools.
The conference provided an opportunity for union leaders to hear from "critical friends," including parents, a state school board member, a business leader, and representatives of national foundations and organizations experienced in solving common problems. Robert Wehling, a senior vice president at Procter & Gamble Co., expressed his belief that the NEA’s focus on fighting voucher and charter school legislation was misguided. He argued that even if these measures passed, the majority of children would still attend public schools. However, Lily Eskelsen, a Utah elementary teacher and NEA executive committee member, disagreed and argued for standing up for what the union believes is right.
Kelly Butler, the executive director of Parents for Public Schools, compared the relationship between parents and schools to a failed marriage. She stressed the need to restore balance and for educators to recognize the important role that parents have in their children’s education. Representatives from Public Agenda, the Kettering Foundation, and the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center also cautioned union members against demonizing their critics.
In an effort to demonstrate their willingness to listen and engage, NEA officials announced plans to visit Focus on the Family, a conservative Christian organization, during an upcoming training program.
Overall, the NEA is pushing for a shift in their approach, moving from a defensive stance to proactive organizing, promoting dialogue with critics, and prioritizing the improvement of public education.
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