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Analysis: The NEA Representative Assembly Is Winding Down. Here’s What It Means

In theory, the assembly's purpose is to elect officers, approve the budget and set national policy. What happens in practice is very different.

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The National Education Association is wrapping up its annual Representative Assembly in Chicago. It is the union’s first in-person convention since the start of the pandemic. NEA was limited to virtual events in 2020 and 2021.

Touted as “the world’s largest democratic deliberative assembly,” the RA, as it is called, suffered from declining attendance even before COVID hit. From a height of almost 10,000 delegates in 1998, participation has dwindled to about 6,000.

The purpose of the four-day assembly is to elect officers, approve the union’s budget and set national policy for the coming school year. In practice, however, the agenda is largely decided by the union’s executive officers, staff and 172-member board of directors. The election results are usually a foregone conclusion, and the budget is always approved with no alterations.

Where the delegates get their say is in the introduction, debate and votes on “new business items.” These are actions that are “specific in nature and terminal in application, shall concern issues beyond one affiliate and shall not call for NEA to do work that is already in progress.” It takes just 50 delegate signatures on a petition to get an item to the floor for debate and vote.

The focus of these items runs the gamut, from battling institutional racism to supporting a national opt out/test refusal movement to calling for Arne Duncan to resign as President Barack Obama’s secretary of education. Many have no relation to education or labor at all.

Though approval of new business items is the expressed will of the delegates, execution of the actions demanded usually falls very short of impactful. The 2021 assembly debated 66 items. Of these, 11 were ruled out of order or withdrawn. Ten were voted down. A full 22 were referred to an NEA standing committee without a recommendation. That left only 23 that were approved. Of those, nine called on NEA to use its print and social media outlets to publicize something.

While the business items address a multitude of problems in all walks of life, they rarely take on the daily operations of the union itself. Items concerning the utilization of NEA staff have been ruled out of order because that task is under the purview of the union’s executive director. A 2000 item that would have forbidden NEA officers or staff from crossing a picket line was argued against by then-General Counsel Bob Chanin on the grounds it would deny the union “flexibility.” The delegates took the hint and voted the item down.

Over the years, the assembly has increasingly become a stage-managed event. Media interest has declined along with delegate attendance, but NEA doesn’t seem to mind too much. I myself had my press credential revoked after 19 consecutive years of covering the convention because of my association with The 74. Only Education Week sent a reporter to cover the proceedings in person.

I — and I assume others — are covering what we can by various other means, and I will have a recap of the convention in this space next week. But it’s a longshot that any decisions made by the union this week in Chicago will ultimately have any direct effect on America’s schoolchildren.

Mike Antonucci’s Union Report appears most Wednesdays; see the full archive.

Clarification: A previous version of this article noted that the assembly program book did not show a designated press area on the convention floor. Education Week’s Madeline Will, who is attending the event, reports that there is indeed a press area this year.

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