NEA President: Nation Must Close Achievement Gap

By Ilana Kowarski

A room packed with members of the U.S. Congress and national business leaders listened as NEA President Dennis Van Roekel issued a call to arms at this past week’s gathering of the Congressional Black Caucus. His message: the nation needs to focus more on public schools to create equal opportunity for all.

Unless the education system is fixed, he warned, racial inequalities would persist.

Van Roekel was a keynote speaker at the Minority Business Issue Forum hosted by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who serves as chair of the caucus. The forum, “Pipeline to Prosperity: Creating Sustainable Partnerships for Minority Businesses,” was sponsored by the NEA and Google, and it included discussions of how best to help minority entrepreneurs.

Van Roekel said that education was crucial to this mission. “The pipeline to the success of minority owned businesses is right through our classrooms, and we need to improve what is going on there,” he said. “We need to fulfill the promise of public education.”

To do that, educators and policymakers need to lead a “transformation of the system,” Van Roekel said. Without a big picture approach, education reformers were destined to fail, he said.

“Public education is a system, and it is a system that has produced the same horrible achievement gaps for generations,” he said. “We cannot continue with a system that is designed to do that.”

Van Roekel urged his audience to make supporting needy schools a “high priority” and to assist the NEA in its Priority Schools Campaign.  “This is the time to totally disrupt the status quo,” he said.

After the keynote speech to the forum, Van Roekel hit “radio row” at the event, meeting with nationally syndicated talk show host Warren Ballentine and radio personalities from Magic 102.3 FM and WKYS 93.9 FM — Washington, D.C.-based stations. Van Roekel discussed the Priority Schools Campaign and talked about how NEA is working to help transform low-performing schools.

Photo: Brian Washington/NEA