Van Roekel Tells RA Delegates Bringing Equity to Schools Requires Leadership, Not Just Action

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel delivered his final keynote speech at the 2014 Representative Assembly on Wednesday with a passionate and stirring exhortation for educators to lead the movement to bring equity and excellence to the nation’s schools. Success in ridding the system of high-stakes testing and the influence of corporate reformers, creating higher standards, and building a quality workforce will depend on nothing less, Van Roekel told the assembly.

“A strong future for public education for our association depends on leading an agenda focused on student success and educator quality, not as an afterthought, but as our first priority.”

NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen García and NEA Secretary Treasurer Becky Pringle introduced Van Roekel with a heartfelt and humorous tribute, good-naturedly ribbing him for his boundless optimism, but also praising his courageous leadership. “It truly is the end of an era,” Eskelsen García said. They then asked Van Roekel’s 100-year-old mother, Marie, a retired teacher and lifelong NEA member to invite her son to the stage.

President Dennis Van Roekel delivers his Keynote Address during the 2014 NEA Representative Assembly

Reflecting on his long and storied career as an educator and union leader, Van Roekel took the opportunity to look at where the NEA and public schools have travelled in the three decades since he attended his first RA in 1980. It has been, he said, a proud but tumultuous time for the organization, marked by three key transformations: the growing importance of social justice to NEA’s work, the shift toward union-based political action, and the monumental changes following the release of  “A Nation at Risk” in 1983.

The landmark report contained some solid recommendations that went ignored.  What happened next, Van Roekel said, set the stage for where we stand today: many politicians see public education not as a shared national value, but as a problem, and an army of corporate reformers see schools as profit centers, not places of learning

“Ideas and recommendations materialized that were never mentioned in the report. Vouchers, tax credits, privatization, merit pay – a whole new generation of so-called reforms,” Van Roekel recalled.

The verdict on these schemes is abundantly clear. An onslaught of testing triggered by No Child Left Behind has robbed a generation of students a substantive and valuable education and imposed a punitive accountability system that has punished teachers and students alike.

“Plain and simple, their strategy has failed America’s students, especially students who are poor and students of color. It is not acceptable to continue down this path. The direction must change!” Van Roekel declared to  applause.

“We must not allow politicians to define the terms of change and ‘accountability’ to yet another generation of students,” Van Roekel said. “Accountability is not about what the test scores are–it is about what the system did, in every way possible, to help all students succeed. This is about equity.”

To neutralize the influence of the corporate reformers and move equity front and center in the national conversation about public education, Van Roekel said educators must create a “a student-centered strategy led by this union. Educators have to become the champions of equity–to define solutions that drive excellence and success for all students.”

Video: Dennis Van Roekel’s 2014 NEA Representative Assembly Keynote Address

Van Roekel outlined four pillars of a strategy to help create a more level playing field for all students in our schools : 1) expand early childhood education to improve school readiness, 2) redirect resources away from testing companies and toward  improved conditions of learning and teaching,  3) create high standards for all learners and 4) take ownership of and responsibility for a quality teacher workforce.

Van Roekel cautioned that an aggressive educator-led campaign that is committed to equity and social justice, high standards, the dismantling of the testing industry, and collective bargaining would be rocky and controversial.

“There will be pushback. There will be struggle. And yes, there will be progress. There must be progress! ”

In closing, Roekel urged the delegates not to be afraid of the possible consequences of wielding their power and urged them to draw inspiration from Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycott 60 years ago, when a community pushed their personal limits to new heights of leadership, collective action and commitment.

“I will always be a believer in the power and promise of public education, Van Roekel said. “Three million deeply-caring, dedicated and talented professionals-it energizes me when I think of what this organization can accomplish in the years ahead.”