Commentary

Wither the NEA?

This article also appeared in the Desert Dispatch.

For an instant, the National Education Association (NEA) seemed poised to turn a corner. “Let me send my kids to the schools where yours go,” NEA president Reg Weaver exhorted a Florida crowd in May, sparking hope that the leader of the nation’s largest teachers union was about to demand school choice. No such luck. “Let me send my kids to the schools where yours go” was followed by “and you send yours to where mine go and then you tell me if money is not important.” Ugh. The same old demand for money.

Just as Weaver hadn’t changed his tune in May, nothing at the NEA’s 2004 Annual Meeting, held last week in Washington, D.C., suggested that his union has evolved. “If there is enough money for war, there’s enough money for us to provide students with that which will ensure they achieve and succeed,” Weaver declared to roughly 9,000 union representatives. And how can that money be obtained? By electing candidates who are able to make “the logical connection between a great public school and adequate and equitable funding…”

Actually, no such “logical connection” exists. The U.S. Department of Education has reported that between 1965 and 2003, U.S. per-pupil spending, adjusted for inflation, nearly tripled, while achievement on such measures as the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading exam was flat. Similarly, a 2003 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) analysis found that though internationally the United States is a leading education spender, it produces only middling results on math, reading and science assessments. “There are countries which don’t get the bang for the bucks, and the U.S. is one of them,” explained OECD Education Director Barry McGaw.

Of course, the NEA’s focus isn’t on children’s success. It’s on money for itself and its members. After all, it’s a labor union. And as Albert Shanker, the former president of the NEA’s main rival, the American Federation of Teachers, once said, “I’ll start representing kids when kids start paying union dues.”

To most effectively represent its members, the NEA has forged itself into a powerful political organization, especially within the Democratic Party, enabling it to influence the election of candidates who make the connection — logical or otherwise — between good schools and huge funding. It’s no coincidence that the NEA’s members typically account for about a quarter of the delegates at the Democratic National Convention, and are expected to have the largest contingent at this year’s convention.

But there are signs that the NEA’s political sway might be getting as calcified as its worn-out rhetoric. Foremost among them is the cancellation of John Kerry’s address to Annual Meeting attendees scheduled for July 6, the day he announced John Edwards as his running mate. Understandably, the vice presidential announcement was the focal point of Kerry’s day, but he certainly could have made his announcement at another time had he really wanted to court the NEA.

In a positive sign for the union, Kerry did try to make up for his absence the next day, when he and Edwards addressed the annual meeting live via satellite, but at least some damage had no doubt been done. And it wasn’t Kerry’s first offense: In May he unveiled a plan to make firing bad teachers easier, and to create a pay-for-performance system that would reward teachers whose students showed improvement on standardized tests. Both are big no-nos for the union. The overall proposal was still very NEA-friendly, though, offering $30 billion over 10 years in what, according to the New York Times, Kerry aides said would be “the biggest federal expenditure of money for teacher salaries yet.”

Meanwhile, there are indications that NEA membership is waning. The Education Policy Institute’s Charlene Haar, who attended much of the Annual Meeting, reported that Reg Weaver announced to an assembly of retired teachers that “NEA-Retired is the fastest growing program in the NEA,” while across the union, “membership is flat.” The NEA’s membership, like its rhetoric and political power, seems to be graying.

And so another NEA Annual Meeting has ended, and while nothing appears to be new, much seems to be getting old: the union’s rhetoric, its membership, and maybe even its influence in the Democratic Party. Only time will tell if this is so, but the handwriting might already be on the schoolyard wall.

Neal McCluskey is an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute.