Analysis: NEA Representative Assembly Sets Out to Solve the World’s Problems While Neglecting Its Own

Proposals on mask & vaccine mandates, abortion and Palestinians' rights take up delegates' time — but membership losses aren't on the agenda

National Education Association headquarters in Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

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The National Education Association Representative Assembly opened in Chicago on July 3 with 5,071 delegates on hand — 3,858 in person and 1,213 online. Participation continued its downward slide, and on-site press coverage was limited to one reporter and outlet — Madeline Will of Education Week.

NEA locked its financial documents and proposed new business items behind a firewall accessible only to delegates. Even after the convention, NEA’s summary includes only a description of the many speeches and the approval of its policy statement on “safe, just and equitable schools.”

But Terry Stoops of the John Locke Foundation got hold of all the proposed items. He tweeted images of some of them. This caused a great deal of buzz and got him temporarily banned from Twitter for “posting other people’s private information.”

Most of the outrage centered on items 37 and 63. The former called on NEA to back a national policy of mandatory masking and vaccines for schools. The latter wanted NEA to inform affiliates of sample contract language that would replace the word “mother” with “birthing parent” and “father” with “non-birthing parent.”

Neither ever had a chance of being approved by the assembly. No, 37 was overwhelmingly defeated, and No. 63 never got to the floor due to time constraints.

Just because items like these don’t become national policy doesn’t mean they aren’t newsworthy. It takes the signatures of only 50 delegates to bring a new business item to the floor, but the assembly is supposed to be “representative.” Fifty delegates represent about 30,000 NEA members. Mandatory masking received 16% of the delegate vote. If those delegates are truly representative, it means that close to a half-million school employees want mandatory masking in all of the nation’s schools. Is that true, or is it just a few hundred delegates expressing their own opinions?

Those two items were controversial among readers following the convention on Twitter. The most controversial items inside the convention center were entirely different. Item 9, for example, called on NEA to “highlight and feature members and affiliates for their work in advocating for the rights of Palestinian children and families and personal stories of Palestinian NEA members and students.” The vote to refer it to an NEA committee was decided by 28 ballots out of more than 4,200 cast.

It was one of four items related to Palestinians, which did not sit well with members of the union’s Jewish Affairs Caucus, one of whom went to the Cleveland Jewish News, which published the names of the items’ sponsors.

This, in turn, didn’t sit well with Palestinian supporters, who attempted to introduce a motion of censure of the Jewish delegate. This was ruled out of order, although most of the delegates had little idea of what was going on. In any case, the Cleveland Jewish News removed the names from the article.

Item 34 prompted a great deal of debate. It committed the union to “publicly stand in defense of abortion and reproductive rights and encourage members to participate in … rallies and demonstrations, lobbying and political campaigns, educational events and other actions. …”

Until 2019, NEA’s public stance on abortion was designed to wordsmith its way past critics. The union’s resolutions state that it “believes in family planning, including the right to reproductive freedom.” This allowed NEA to support abortion rights while providing cover for state affiliates in locations where such a position would be unpopular and hurt member recruiting, such as Tennessee.

In 2019, delegates approved a new business item that read, “The NEA vigorously opposes all attacks on the right to choose and stands on the fundamental right to abortion under Roe v. Wade.” It was the first time the union officially affirmed its support for a constitutional right to abortion.

This year’s item went further, committing NEA to take a number of specific actions in support of abortion rights. The delegates approved item 34 by a vote of 3,103 to 1,084.

It’s questionable whether three-quarters of NEA members support abortion to this extent, but such a vote may be self-fulfilling. Abortion opponents will refuse to join the union, reducing their percentage among members.

Then there were the items that didn’t cause any stir, but probably should have.

No. 31 was referred to committee without debate. It called on NEA to revive the issue of a merger with the American Federation of Teachers. We are a long time removed from the failed 1998 attempt, and there is no indication as to whether sentiments have changed.

Item No. 44 passed by a margin of 3,195 to 590. It directed NEA to send contract language to affiliates that would provide paid bereavement leave for pregnancy loss and failed fertility treatments.

I’m not sure how well this harmonizes with the union’s abortion support. Surely abortion constitutes a “pregnancy loss.” Would it qualify for purposes of bereavement leave? One delegate reportedly opposed the measure because “it extends personhood to a fetus.”

Finally, you may have noticed that the total number of votes on each of these items comes nowhere close to 5,071 — the number of delegates registered on day one. By the evening of the final day, the total number of votes per item hovered between 65% and 75% of the registered delegates.

With an 8 p.m. deadline to meet, the union’s budget was approved in a matter of minutes. Delegates didn’t seem overly concerned with projected membership numbers or how off the mark NEA’s previous forecasts were.

The 2021-22 budget was based on an expectation of 1,652,000 active professional, or full-time, members. Most of these are classroom teachers. That would have been an increase of 55,000 members from the previous year’s projection.

But reports to the U.S. Department of Labor showed NEA had lost almost 60,000 members during the 2020-21 school year. NEA’s secretary-treasurer reported to the board of directors earlier this year that losses had continued, with another 15,000-member drop.

The budget for 2022-23 doesn’t forecast a rebound. NEA expects 1,637,000 active professionals and 263,000 active support employees, down 15,000 and 5,000, respectively, from the previous year’s budget.

But membership numbers, the expenditures of dues dollars, and the effect of the assembly’s actions on both, weren’t the primary worries of many delegates. One tweeted, “when you bring up the cost of New Business Items (NBIs) as a reason for not supporting — you’re defaulting to white supremacy culture.”

The average classroom teacher gets unfairly blamed for the fringe stuff that comes out of the convention, but chances are very good that most have no idea what is being done in their name by their national union. If it’s any consolation, it’s unlikely anything the NEA Representative Assembly did this year will move the needle. No member not already so inclined is suddenly going to attend an abortion rally simply because NEA “encourages” it.

The representative assembly provides a nice little bubble for NEA activists to congratulate themselves on their devotion to various causes. Its 5,000 delegates may constitute the “world’s largest democratic deliberative assembly,” but 75,000 members voted with their feet in the last two years. If that trend continues, it will eclipse whatever future actions the delegates have in mind.

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