Standing Strong: NEA Opens 90th RA

By Will Potter and Cindy Long  
CHICAGO–NEA President Dennis Van Roekel called to order the National Education Association’s 90th Representative Assembly on Saturday. He addressed nearly 8,000 delegates and urged them to stand strong and speak up for students, the teaching profession, and the future of the nation


“We care about every student, we care about public education, we care about this country, and we are closing ranks,” Van Roekel said. “Our country is not for sale to the highest political donor or the wealthiest corporations. It belongs to the people who built Main Street, not the wheeler-dealers on Wall Street. It belongs to our children who expect us to safeguard its promise.”

Dennis Van Roekel delivers his keynote speech at The 2011 NEA Representative Assembly. Calvin Knight/RA Today

Educators and collective bargaining have been under attack in Wisconsin, Ohio, and beyond. Van Roekel said that these attacks are about politics, not about closing budget deficits or helping students succeed; now is not the time to retreat, it’s time to organize and to lead.

 This year’s Friend of Education Award was given to 14 Democratic Senators from Wisconsin who showed that leadership. They made the bold decision earlier this year to leave the state, rather than vote for a bill to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights.

NEA delegates gave them a rousing and emotional welcome. Throughout the struggle in Wisconsin, while crowds in the state capitol swelled to as many as 100,000 in protest, the Wisconsin 14 remained in Illinois isolated from the energy of the movement. They got their thanks on Saturday, as NEA delegates honored their courage.

“The courage these senators exhibited during those long, cold weeks in February and March did not go unnoticed,” said Van Roekel. “Those of us who educate America’s children will always be grateful for their friendship, their bravery and their willingness to stand strong for public education and working families.”

Educators have been feeling these attacks across the country, and morale has clearly suffered. But they’re rising to the challenge.

 “Organizing is the key to all of this,” said Melissa Spencer, president of the Des Moines Education Association. “We’re organizing members, as well as parents and the community to help talk about how teachers need collective bargaining, a fair evaluation system, and a good public school. And, we’re making phone calls, sending emails and visiting legislators to make sure this happens.”

On Friday, the “Day of Learning”—an all-day event packed with workshops and panel discussions on improving our schools—helped set the stage for the RA with a conversation about where our public schools are headed.

Sessions addressed the often short-sighted programs and policies that have cropped up in the recent attacks on public education, and also proposed solutions. The interactive town hall featured NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, Anne L. Bryant, executive director of the National School Boards Association, Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, and Debra Strauss, a member representative of the national Parent Teacher Association board of directors.

Also on Friday, NEA’s Office of Minority Community Outreach, leaders from diverse, ethnic minority communities discussed the labor and education issues facing our schools and offered strategies to help everyone understand the alliance between communities and organized labor.

The session, “Legislators, Labor and Leaders: Stopping the Rhetoric and Working Together,” was moderated by Ed Gordon, host of “Weekly with Ed Gordon” on BET. Panelists included Rep. Danny K. Davis of the 7th Congressional District of Illinois, Luis Vicente Gutiérrez of the 4th Congressional District of Illinois, Maria Teresa Kumar, founding executive director of Voto Latino, and Lillian Sparks J.D, a Lakota woman of the Rosebud and Oglala Sioux Tribes executive director of the National Indian Education Association (NIEA).

They tackled the issue of why America’s workers are under attack and what educators can do about it.

“The struggle for labor rights is the struggle for the middle class,” said panelist Gregory Cendana, Executive Director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), AFL-CIO. “It’s a common struggle, and we need to build partnerships, and genuine relationships to win the fight.”

To follow all the action from NEA’s Representative Assembly, head to RA Today