by Nat Malkus and RJ Martin
Last week, thousands of teachers gathered in Houston for the National Education Association’s (NEA) annual convention. During the convention, any group of 50 delegates could bring to the floor a new business item, which is a one-year, non-binding resolution directing the union to take a certain action.
Over 160 new business items were proposed, including New Business Item 2, a motion pledging the NEA would “re-dedicate itself to the pursuit of increased student learning in every public school in America.” The resolution also proposed that the “NEA will make student learning the priority of the Association” and that every NEA program should be evaluated by asking, “How does the proposed action promote the development of students as lifelong reflective learners?”
When put to a vote of 6,000 NEA delegates, the motion failed.
It’s unclear why the NEA would vote against re-dedicating itself to “increased student learning,” since the vote happened in a closed-door session. But with no obvious poison pills in the item, “supporting student learning” should be the easiest vote that these teachers take.
One would think that this motion’s defeat would be a public relations nightmare, because it could fuel the perception — a perception long denied by unions — that teachers unions look out primarily for teachers rather than students. But so far, that public relations nightmare hasn’t happened: Coverage of the convention in both mainstream media outlets and the education trade press have said almost nothing about the resolution’s failure.
Yet for anyone looking closely, delegates’ decision to vote down the “student learning” resolution comes into sharper relief when compared to resolutions that did pass. When it came to numerous left-leaning ideas — many with seemingly little relation to teaching kids — delegates eagerly voiced their approval. Over the course of the convention, the delegates endorsed “the fundamental right to abortion under Roe v. Wade,” enthused over reparations for slave descendants, and called on the US government to “accept responsibility for the destabilization” of Central American countries and that this destabilization is “a root cause of the recent increase of asylum seekers in the United States.”
And that’s not all. They also voted in favor of helping with the 2020 Census, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, and teaching the concept of “White Fragility” (which they explain is produced by “white supremacy culture”) in NEA professional development.
Put together, the voting record from this year’s convention makes it pretty clear where NEA delegates’ priorities lie.
A similar focus was evident in the NEA conference agenda. During the convention, there were breakout sessions on topics like “Racial and Social Justice,” “Ethnic and Minority Affairs,” and “Women’s Issues.” Along with those discussions, delegates heard from a smorgasbord of progressive left warriors like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Bill de Blasio. Meanwhile, per the convention agenda, there wasn’t a single session devoted to curriculum and instruction, nor raising student test scores.
How can this be? The NEA represents 3 million members, mostly public school teachers of all walks of life, from all political persuasions — 60% of whom have identified as Republicans or independents. The vast majority of these members undoubtedly care deeply about helping kids learn. While we see many things differently than the NEA, we also know many members, and they’re reasonable people whom we highly respect. That’s why it’s so bizarre to watch the majority of NEA delegates eagerly dive into politically-fraught abortion and race debates, while voting down a clear commitment to prioritize student learning. So please, NEA: Can you explain?
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Nat Malkus is a resident scholar and the deputy director of education policy at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in empirical research through the use of quantitative data to analyze K–12 schooling. RJ Martin is a research assistant in education policy studies at AEI. Follow Nat on Twitter at @natmalkus.
Photo “Elizabeth Warren and Lily Garcia” by Elizabeth Warren.