Nothing Extra about Extracurriculars

I spent Saturday night in Chicago, attending my graduating class’s 45th reunion at St. Patrick High School. It was my first time back at the school since a few months after I graduated. While it was great seeing some of my classmates again, the highlight of the evening was reuniting with my old chorus director, Brother Konrad Diebold. And that made me think about the importance of extracurriculars, both in my own life and in general.

A great friend of ours believes that American schools should drop their emphasis on interscholastic sports and allow cities and clubs to organize recreational sports, as they do in Europe. And with all respect, I don’t think I can agree. Like it or not, extracurriculars are an integral part of the education process, and one of the great tragedies of education today is the obsessive pursuit of high test scores to the exclusion of almost everything else.

St. Pat’s is generally thought of as a fine school. It has been able to continue its mission of providing a faith-based education for young men as it did when it was founded in 1861. And yet, with a few exceptions, what I remember about St. Pat’s isn’t the academics. I was an indifferent student, working hard on things that interested me and not at all on things that didn’t. What St. Pat’s did have was an outstanding lineup of extracurricular activities. I have always had widely varied interests, and I belonged to a lot of extracurriculars in school. I very nearly lived at school, staying late many nights and working there on weekends. Forty-five years after graduating, I am still using things I learned in the extracurricular activities offered by my high school.

  • In our tour on Saturday, one of the sites we visited was the gym. There in a loft above the gym was – as it was then – the TV studio. In the sixties, when videotape was an exotic technology and black-and-white TV cameras were the size of suitcases, St. Pat’s had a TV station that delivered news broadcasts to the freshman building (which had closed-circuit TVs) and televised basketball games to overflow audiences. As a director and cameraman, I had a chance to work with that technology, and it began a romance with photography that continued into college and beyond.
  • How many schools have a Political Science Club? St. Pat’s did, and it was there that I learned about parliamentary procedure. When the club also sent me to interview a Congressional candidate, it led  to my volunteering in the first of many political campaigns.
  • Not enough schools have speech and debate teams, but St. Pat’s did: it was called the Sheen Club, named after the powerful Catholic preacher Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. As a member of the Sheen Club and a speech and debate competitor, I learned to become more comfortable talking in front of people.
  • As a writer and editor for Green and Gold, the school newspaper, I learned to write nonfiction on a deadline, as I continue to do today.
  • When I was a junior, the chorus needed an organist, and Brother Konrad signed me up for the job. Since the chorus already had a pianist and used the organist only occasionally, that meant that I also had a place among the singers, which began a lifetime love affair with choral singing.
  • Later that year, St. Pat’s staged Oliver, our first musical. At Brother Konrad’s request, I learned to play mallet instruments in the percussion section of the orchestra, which re-ignited a love of musical theater that had been dormant since eighth grade. I performed in the cast of Fiorello in my senior year, and those experiences helped me years later when I became a school drama director.
  • (It’s worth mentioning here that the benefits weren’t all professional. St. Pat’s was and is all-male. The chorus performed with nearby girls’s schools, and plays recruited female cast and orchestra members. These extracurriculars in particular were opportunities to meet girls, and I found I liked them.)

You may notice that I pretty much ignore athletics here. As a high school student, I generally avoided physical activity; I enjoyed being a spectator at interscholastic sports, but never participated in any. It’s clear to me, though, that athletics are just as important to many students as my non-athletic extracurricular activities were for me.

So it will come as no surprise that I think of extracurricular activities as critical to the mission of schools, at least for some students. Among the tragedies I see in school today are 1) the replacement of experiential learning with uniform, regimented instruction; 2) the equation of learning with testing; and 3) the epidemic of play-to-play schemes, which are based on the idea that extracurriculars aren’t integral to education.

For many students, it’s the extracurriculars that give them a reason to go to school every day. They did that for me.

Talk Radio

I called in recently to a radio program called The Sound of Ideas, heard on Cleveland Public Radio, WCPN-FM 90.3, weekdays 9:00-10:00. Since then the producer called asking me to appear on today’s show, “Money, Politics and Unions after Issue 2,” and I agreed to be a guest. Other members of the panel–all much heavier hitters than me–were:
  • Harriet Applegate of the North Shore AFL-CIO, with us in the studio;
  • by phone, Peter Overby, NPR’s “Power, Money and Influence” correspondent, who covers campaign finance;
  • by phone, Mark Mix, President of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation.
If you’re masochistic, you might enjoy downloading the show’s podcast. If you’re really adventurous, watch the video; if you can take it, so can I.

So how was this experience, you ask? Well, I learned stage fright young: as a music student I would be a complete basket case before each recital. And although by now I’ve spoken, acted, sung, played, or taught thousands of times, I’m still pretty nervous before anything that resembles a performance.

One surprise to me was how quickly the hour went. I had prepared for the session, and had my various papers arranged in front of me at the desk. I wound up hardly referring to any of them, and instead used the top handout mostly to take notes and keep track of my thoughts. In this setting, it seems, it does no good to anticipate what the next question might be or to dwell on the last one: the most important thing is to concentrate on the moment. In little league they called it “keeping your head in the game,” and it’s not something I was or am especially good at; but for an hour at a time, I guess I can.
With stage fright goes that delicious feeling when it’s over, and by 10:00 I was feeling pretty relieved. I’d do it again: the risk of sounding stupid is a worthwhile price to pay for the opportunity to do something you believe in.

Ideas Matter

Ohioans go to the polls tomorrow to determine the fate of Senate Bill 5, which aimed to replace public employee collective bargaining with collective begging. In a series which ends today, I’ve been writing about “three things that matter.” I’ve been working backward from the observation that leadership–particularly local union leadership–matters, and that this was made clearer by this year, in which our members have learned to their sorrow just how much elections matter. Today, I’m writing about the most basic of these: ideas matter.

III. Ideas Matter.

Our leaders and our members had to do such heroic work this year (leadership matters) because we face a political foe who has made it his business to destroy public employee unions (elections matter). But our political foes couldn’t get much traction if they hadn’t been winning an ideological fight for many years. If we can’t figure out how to win that fight, then all the elections and all the organizing in the world won’t save us.

Virtually no intervention prescribed to improve public schools has worked. Charter schools, vouchers, high-stakes testing, merit pay, take your pick–none have worked. American schools continue to be victimized by capricious and inequitable funding, inconsistent academic standards, and indifferent community support. And yet, despite an almost total lack of evidence that they work, each of the interventions I’ve mentioned has its fervent adherents.

All of this would simply be a continuing, nagging aggravation except for the biggest wrong idea of them all–the conversion of public education from a common good to a commodity.

In the late nineties, when the Ohio General Assembly passed the Cleveland “scholarship” (voucher) program, the argument was that the Cleveland schools were in such miserable shape that anything that could be done to help them should be done. But today’s school choice advocates are beyond choice for failing schools. In March, Republican Senate hopeful Josh Mandel, talking to a school choice group on the steps of the Statehouse last spring, argued that taxpayers should pay for whatever education choice parents make, a concept which is embodied in House Bill 136.

HB 136 is the logical fruit of the ideological tree planted in the establishment of the Cleveland voucher program: although it is need-based, it would permit most parents to take tax support and apply it to any school of their choice.

Ohio’s Constitution requires the General Assembly to “secure a thorough and efficient system of common schools throughout the state” (6.02). The DeRolph suit was about whether Ohio school funding provided a “thorough and efficient” system; HB 136 makes that question irrelevent by forgoing common schools altogether and making education a tax-supported consumer purchase.

Ideas matter. This one is probably the worst idea going, and it has bipartisan support: Representatives Bill Patmon (D- Cleveland) and Michael Stinziano (D-Columbus) are co-sponsors. It has a chance of being passed because the public generally doesn’t understand the importance of public schools.

And that’s the case with all the other bad ideas out there in the education marketplace. Our critics have an open field for their narrative: education consists of what standardized tests measure; public schools are failing; quality teaching consists simply of improving students’ best test scores; educator unions are an obstacle to school improvement; merit pay offers an opportunity to improve teaching by providing incentives for better teachers, who by definition are the ones who get the highest test scores; by empowering parents and using market forces, school choice can fix an ailing system.

Let me connect the dots of the case I’ve been trying to build.

  • Leadership matters: We’ve had to use every organization tool at our disposal because of a crisis brought on by the election of zealots.
  • Elections matter: Those zealots were elected in part because of lukewarm support among educators and others who felt that he hadn’t been strong enough in support of our causes. (The same sort of lukewarm support being expressed nationally for President Obama.)
  • Ideas matter: Governor Strickland endorsed bogus education “reforms” because the public tends to believe in them. (And on the national level, President Obama has done the same thing.)

If we don’t win the ideological battle, then ultimately we won’t win the organizational and political battles. If we make it through Election Day with the repeal of Senate Bill 5, we need immediately to start figuring out how to counter the tidal wave of opinion that made us such easy targets in the first place.

Elections Matter

In my previous post, I said that I don’t think it’s too early to contemplate some lessons we’re learning from the events of the past nine months. I said that one of those lessons is that leadership matters, and that we might not have been reminded so forcefully of the importance of leadership if we hadn’t been reminded of how elections matter.

II. Elections matter

It is interesting how educators’ experience with the Obama administration parallels our experience with the Strickland administration in Ohio. If they are as similar as I think, then it is critical that our colleagues on the national level learn from our experience here.

In both cases, we were thrilled with the election of an ally. Expectations were high for both Ted Strickland in 2008 and Barack Obama in 2010. Strickland would fix Ohio’s unconstitutional school funding system. Obama would reverse the excesses of the absurdly misnamed “No Child Left Behind.”

And in both cases, we were disappointed. While Strickland produced an elegant formula for school funding, the funding itself wasn’t institutionalized–and probably couldn’t be without an increase in state revenue that he wasn’t able to get. Worse, even this improvement came with annoying compromises, like an increase in the time needed for teachers to be considered for continuing contracts.

On the federal level, the Obama administration offered improvements in school funding through Race to the Top; but those improvements were flawed in at least two ways. First, they were competitive and unavailable to all, and thus didn’t offer a genuine increase in school funding. Second, they were conditioned on acceptance of teacher evaluation premises that many of teachers and leaders were reluctant to endorse and which required levels of labor-management cooperation that don’t exist in most school districts.

In both cases, educators came to believe that elections didn’t matter. Our world didn’t end under Bush and Taft, and we didn’t reach paradise under Strickland and Obama; so why not send a message? And many Ohio educators, faced with disappointment in the Strickland administration, decided to do just that. They sat on their hands or even supported Kasich in 2010, and by doing so helped give us what we have seen this year.

Let’s be clear here–Kasich didn’t win just because Strickland lost some support from educators. There were plenty of other factors at work, not all of them under Strickland’s control. But some of our people became convinced that elections don’t matter.

Kasich’s supporters were under no such delusions. Strickland faced in 2010, and Obama will almost certainly face in 2012, a political landscape characterized by historically deep divisions between political ideologies. For generations, American candidates have run from their base and governed from the center. Kasich is the first Ohio governor in my 45 years in Ohio who’s not interested in governing from the center: he, along with the ideologues who handed him Senate Bill 5, are interested in trying out their theory of government, and they have the votes to do it. Many claim to be prepared to be one-term lawmakers, as long as they can change the status quo in the way they think it should be changed.

The Republican Presidential candidate in 2012 is likely to be just as ideological–or at least that’s what seems to be happening so far in the campaign, which features a contest among ideological extremists and panderers.

So when I say that “elections matter,” what I’m saying is that in Ohio, we have learned the difference between a weak friend and a strong enemy. And we have learned that the strong enemy is infinitely more dangerous. As hard as it may be, we need to support our friends just as strongly after we’ve learned their flaws as we did when they were our newest best buddy.

We shouldn’t leave this topic without paying some attention to the compromises made by both Strickland and Obama and considering why they felt those compromises were warranted. I’ll take that up in my next post, “Ideas Matter.”

Leadership Matters

Election Day for Ohio Issue 2, the taxpayer veto of Senate Bill 5, will finally arrive on Tuesday. Once the results are in, many smart analysts for media, political parties, unions, and think tanks will be studying the entrails to determine what we’ve learned from Senate Bill 5.

But we don’t need to wait that long to note three critical lessons that public educators should take away from these past nine months. And maybe we shouldn’t: by identifying them now, they won’t be contaminated by our reactions to Election Night.
So regardless of the outcome on November 8, I would suggest that our future survival as a profession–not just here but across the country–may depend on the intelligence with which we understand these lessons and the speed with which we apply them.
I call these the “three things that matter”:
  • leadership matters;
  • elections matter;
  • ideas matter.

I. Leadership matters.

This campaign reminds us once again of the overwhelming importance of leadership. We’ve seen over and over again that strong local leadership can make the difference between a proactive and a reactive membership. We have seen this consistently over relatively peaceful years–in negotiations, in professional development, in legislative awareness, and in member protection. If we find it to be true in calmer times, we shouldn’t be surprised that we find it during a crisis.
Among our locals, the ones that most readily influenced this campaign were the ones that were already positioned to do so. During years of relative peace, they had organized themselves so that when war came, they were ready to fight.
Let me be clear: I don’t mean to imply that many previously sleepy locals didn’t eventually do heroic things. What I do mean to say is that locals that got a crash course in local leadership would be unwise to forget those lessons now. We will need that leadership in the years ahead, no matter what happens on Election Day.
When I talk about leadership here, I am not speaking only of the actions of elected or appointed local leaders. Voicing an opinion or asking a question at a membership meeting is leadership. So is volunteering for a task that needs to be done. So is refusing to go along with an injustice. Crises have a way of bringing rank-and-file members into both formal and informal leadership roles. We must not waste this crisis. We must find ways for members who have just now become motivated and involved to stay that way. And that is the role of elected and appointed local leaders, and it will be their unique challenge in the months and years ahead.
This crisis brought the importance of leadership into sharp focus. It might never have happened in so spectacular a fashion if we hadn’t lost an election in 2010. Which brings us to my next point: elections matter. I’ll have more on that tomorrow.

2011 NEA delegate Mass

I’ll take a few moments here to write a brief account of the NEA Delegate Mass that we held in Chicago on July 3. A fair number of my music colleagues have expressed some curiosity about this annual liturgy. A few years ago I blogged about the 2008 NEA Delegate Mass in Washington, DC, and an article based on that blog appeared in The Liturgical Singer, an NPM publication for cantors.

NEA’s Annual Meeting is an eight-day gathering of leaders from the largest professional association in the United States, and it incorporates a four-day meeting of NEA’s governing body, the Representative Assembly. The RA is the largest deliberative body in the world, with between 8,000 and 10,000 elected delegates.
The four RA days are grueling: state caucuses begin at 7:00 AM, and the RA meets from 10 AM to about 6 PM each day. The RA meets right through Independence Day (and holds its own celebration during the assembly) and whatever Sunday falls within the four days scheduled for its meeting.
Obviously, this schedule creates problems for those who wish to hold Sunday worship. For decades, some delegates have gathered for Mass and an interdenominational prayer service. Since 1996, I’ve been the music minister for the delegate Mass.
Thanks to the connections of a long-time delegate who is a lay Dominican, our celebrants have included a number of Dominican priests. They have included film director Dominic DeLay, composer James Marchionda, now-archbishop DeNoia, and Emiliano Zapata, a former president of an NEA local in Texas. This year’s celebrant was Father Richard LaPata, a former principal of Fenwick HS in Oak Park, Illinois.
The delegate Mass has a number of unique challenges.
  • We never know just when the Mass will start. NEA provides us a room in the convention center, but only after the RA has adjourned for the day. Delegates have to hoof it there quickly, and this year we started the entrance hymn while they were still arriving. At this Mass, the “processional” is frequently for the congregation, not the priest.
  • The time available for Mass is limited by the transportation schedule. NEA uses a system of chartered buses to transport delegates back and forth between the convention center and their hotels. Those shuttles run only for a limited time, and cabs are expensive, so the Mass needs to be “expeditious” while also being reverent.
  • The room is frequently arranged however it was left by the last session. We can usually set an altar up on a speaker’s platform, but typically delegates sit at tables for the Mass. This year we had a unique configuration: round tables–no aisles!
  • We were fortunate this year that NEA had left directions for the microphone and speakers to be left on..

Other than that, what is the Mass like? Most members of this annual congregation say that it is very moving. We do our best to make it like other Masses.

  • We have a cadre of Eucharistic ministers from all over the country. Usually the first six who arrive are the ones who distribute Communion.
  • Similarly, the first several lectors who arrive are put to work with copies of the readings for the day. This year’s Mass was the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time, and that’s about where the NEA delegate Mass typically falls in the liturgical calendar.
  • We never have any problem finding a hospitality and ushering ministry: these people are educators, and they’re used to taking over their space, whether it’s a classroom, bus, library, or in this case, makeshift chapel. Collections are put into whatever convention bags we can commandeer.
  • I’ve scheduled pretty similar music for the past few years: entrance hymn “Here I Am, Lord,” “I Am the Bread of Life” and/or “Pan de Vida” for Communion, and “America, the Beautiful” for the recessional.
  • When the convention is driveable, as it was this year, I bring my electronic keyboard and associated gear; when I have to fly to the convention city, I lead with just my voice.
  • We have a worship aid.
  • We have an emailing list to provide announcements and updates.

We typically have a congregation of a few hundred for this Mass, and delegates report that they look forward to it each year. We’ll be in DC again next year, and my guess is that we’ll be celebrating again in a room at the Washington Convention Center on Sunday, July 1.


As readers of this blog will know, I had the opportunity this week to give testimony on behalf of NEOEA to the Ohio House Commerce and Labor Committee for public employee collective bargaining, and against Senate Bill 5. (That testimony appears here.)Sometimes what appears to be a curse is actually a blessing. I don’t wait particularly well, and before delivering my testimony I needed to wait while several others delivered theirs. Members of the committee questioned several of the witnesses: always respectfully, but sometimes clearly in sympathy with the witnesses’ positions and sometimes not. I was struck by the number of items I heard delivered as fact that are simply incorrect. Some of these whoppers were told by witnesses, but some were passed on by members of the Committee, whom one would expect to be more knowledgeable.These errors have clouded the debate concerning Senate Bill 5, and I took the opportunity last night to point them out in an email to the Committee. Error 1: “Union dues are used to support candidates.” To do so would be illegal. Unions do have access to member PAC contributions, but those PACs consist of voluntary contributions. Error 2: Unions enjoy “forced membership.” Forcing membership would be illegal; charging an agency fee is not. Those who refer to “forced membership” almost never refer to the union’s legally-defined Duty of Fair Representation, which amounts to what might be termed “forced” representation and seems to make the relationship reciprocal. (Those who oppose agency fee arrangements don’t usually address whether they think unions should be freed from DFR, leaving the impression that they think non-members will pay dues if they can get the service for free.) Error 3: “I support union members but not union leaders.” Union governance is democratic by law, since union elections are federally regulated. NEOEA surveys of union leaders and rank-and-file members do not indicate any significant differences in their attitudes and beliefs. Supporting one implies support for the other. Error 4: “Teachers’ unions influence school board elections and then make sweetheart deals with their hand-picked board members.” Although a few of our locals make endorsements in school board elections, most do not. But if boards were indeed in union pockets, one assumes that OSBA would be joining with us against SB 5 instead of supporting it. When I repeated this whopper at a public meeting Wednesday evening, it drew laughter from the audience. Error 5: “State law mandates automatic step increases.” Automatic step increases are incorporated in most teacher contracts, but those provisions are not mandated by state law. (Observation: changes to existing salary schedules can be extremely difficult to work out, not only with Boards but with members. Sometimes the union’s toughest negotiations are among its own members.) As I told the Representatives in my email, “I have confined myself here to errors that I actually heard in the hearing room yesterday, and have resisted the temptation to address other errors that creep into the debate about this important issue. Simply correcting these will be enough for now.”

Senate Bill 5 testimony

Testimony before the Commerce and Labor Committee, Ohio House of Representatives, in Opposition to Senate Bill 5 Wednesday, March 16, 2011 Chairman Uecker, Ranking Minority Member Yuko, and members of the Committee, I want to thank you for this opportunity to meet with you on the topic of public employee collective bargaining. I presently serve the 33,000 members of the North Eastern Ohio Education Association as their Executive Director, and I have had the opportunity to meet some of you in connection with my work there. Before my employment by NEOEA, I was a teacher and local union president in two school districts in northeastern Ohio, both before and after passage in 1983 of Ohio’s present Collective Bargaining Law, and it is about those experiences that I would like to talk with you today. What I observed over and over again as a local president is that students are best served by teachers who can be creative, courageous, and enterprising, and that strong unions, due process rights, and effective evaluation procedures are the best way to encourage those qualities. In the school year 1976-77, I was president of a teachers union in southeastern Cuyahoga County. Presidents served for a year as president-elect before serving a year as president. Teachers and the Board had a Memorandum of Understanding which functioned as a Collective Bargaining Agreement, and we periodically negotiated amendments to its terms. In the spring of 1977, the school district had a large renewal levy scheduled on the May ballot, and in April, 72 of my members were nonrenewed. In those days, limited-contract teachers could be nonrenewed without the employer stating any reasons. It was widely assumed that the reason for the nonrenewals was financial uncertainty due to the pending levy and that the nonrenewed teachers would be rehired if the levy passed, but neither the school administration nor the Board would say that for the record. That refusal led to speculation that finances weren’t the only reason for the nonrenewals. The layoffs had nothing to do with seniority: more senior teachers were laid off while less senior, identically-licensed teachers were retained. Comparisons of administrative observations and evaluations established that teaching quality was not a factor. What was clear was that while the school district had nonrenewed about one-third of the teaching staff, the superintendent had selected all of my officers and about three-quarters of my Executive Committee for nonrenewal. We believed then, and I believe now, that the nonrenewals were a reprisal for union activity. Even though strikes in those days were illegal, our members set a strike date. The strike was averted when the president-elect and I met with the superintendent and hammered out an agreement in which the Board identified finances as the reason for most of the nonrenewals and provided a guarantee that they would be rehired if the levy passed. The levy did pass, and 70 of my teachers were rehired. The president-elect and I were not rehired, and each of us eventually found teaching positions elsewhere. Ladies and gentlemen, I recount these events not to rehash an old war story, but to draw some lessons from it.

  • First: Domination and intimidation of union leaders resonates throughout a staff. Our dismissal for union activities was standard operating procedure, not an isolated incident. Reprisals made that school system a fearful place, and teachers worked in an atmosphere of coercion and reprisal.
  • Second: A system that puts unchecked authority in the hands of one party is ripe for abuse. I don’t say that all supervisors, principals, and superintendents are vindictive; but experience teaches us that all people make mistakes and many people can be vindictive, and unilateral authority invites abuse. I suspect that few of us have ever seen a party to any relationship who could be neutral about disputes in that relationship.
  • Third: Clearly identified and mutually agreed-upon systems of due process, retention, transfer, and dispute resolution protect all the parties and make schools better places. While Senate Bill 5 does not completely eliminate collective bargaining for teachers, it would weaken unions as effective advocates for teachers.
  • Fourth: The working conditions of teachers become the learning conditions of their students. Intimidated, nervous, fearful people may be easy to manage, but they aren’t likely to be courageous, innovative, creative teachers, and their students pay the price. My president-elect and I moved on in 1977, but we left behind a school system in which morale was poor for both teachers and students.

Ladies and gentlemen, I do not argue that collective bargaining practices in Ohio are perfect. What I do respectfully suggest is what I have always seen at the negotiating table: that the best remedy for the problems of collective bargaining is not less bargaining, but more. Thank you for your kind attention.

Lessons of 2010

Governor Ted Strickland’s election-night email to supporters says that last night, he “thanked the Congressman [Kasich] and his supporters for a hard-fought race that allowed all Ohioans the opportunity to consider the kind of future they want for themselves and for their families.”
If this campaign was in fact an “opportunity to consider the kind of future” we want, it probably didn’t provide that opportunity in the way Governor Strickland meant. It may have given us an opportunity to consider the kind of campaigns we want, but that’s not the same thing.
Governor-elect Kasich articulated a vision for the Ohio he wants to see. In many ways, it’s the wrong vision: he says he intends to balance the budget, but he was never required to identify just how. It is clear to me as a retired public educator that in some way or another my colleagues and I will pay part of the bill: he said as much in the campaign, and he refused even to meet with education union leaders.
But as wrong as his vision is, he wasn’t shy about articulating it. Governor Strickland, a good man with a lack of imagination, never articulated a vision for his second term as Ohio governor, instead relying for the most part on attack ads that made the point that Kasich was a Wall Street insider. Unfortunately, many taxpayers probably figure that being a Wall Street insider is nice work if you can get it. (The problem with class warfare as a campaign strategy is that many people are Democrats but aspire to be Republicans.)
More damaging, by using limited campaign resources to beat a dead horse, Strickland lost opportunities to use those resources to expound his own vision–which, granted, presumes that he had one.
George W. Bush showed us how far you can go by being wrong and strong; consider the power of slogans like “No Child Left Behind” and “Mission Accomplished.” Ted was right, but he was weak, and voters don’t reward that.

Now Is the Summer of Our Discontent

I’ve attended sixteen NEA Annual Meetings. Two seem to me to have been more important than the others; both took place in New Orleans.

  • In 1998, NEA delegates rejected the “Principles of Unity,” which would have set us on a path toward a merger with the American Federation of Teachers. Along with a majority of the Ohio delegation, I supported the Principles, and it’s possible that the RA’s failure to adopt them helped set the stage for the second.
  • This year, RA delegates finally began to confront three uncomfortable truths that we should already have known. First, support of any candidate is a marriage of convenience: any office-holder will sacrifice virtually any ideal if it means being re-elected. Second, many Democratic officeholders have accepted the three basic tenets of Republican doctrine on public education: accountability, school choice, and the obstinacy of teachers’ unions. Third, public educators can rely on no one but themselves to understand and support their issues.

This RA was the least hopeful and the most angry of the ones I’ve attended. The delegates’ discontent is fueled by two realizations.

  • We are politically alone. The Democratic Party uses us and the Republican Party hates us.
  • We have so far been unable to energize our enormous membership base and realize more than a fraction of its political potential.

I don’t believe for a moment that we are wrong. Accountability and school choice are disastrous doctrines that, left unchecked, will destroy American public education. The teachers’ unions, far from blocking their members’ desires for reform, are accurately voicing concerns shared by the overwhelming majority of public educators.But I do believe that wishful thinking has dominated our internal dialogues and delayed our actually doing anything about the critical issues I have outlined here. In the weeks ahead, I am going to post an analysis of the issues I have raised here. I invite interested readers to come back from time to time and to post their own comments.