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2011 RA Keynote Address - NEA President Dennis Van Roekel

As Prepared for Delivery

July 2, 2011 – Chicago

Thank you for that warm welcome, Lily, and thank you for that kind introduction.

Delegates - welcome to the 149th annual meeting of the National Education Association, the 90th Representative Assembly!
 
This organization has a long and exciting history, and our RA is definitely part of that history.
 
I’ll never forget my first RA.  I remember so well walking into the huge hall, the jumbo screens, the stage and the giant backdrop … the music and the debate.
 
And now, years later, I'm here with almost 9,000 teachers, Education Support Professionals, higher ed faculty, and retirees. Each of you has wonderful memories about helping students discover talents they didn’t know they had.
 
We’ve all felt that joy and passion for making a difference for students – that’s why we’re here.
 
And we also have student members here who share those values, and will become the next generation of dedicated educators and leaders. 
 
But there’s one person here who has shared that passion and commitment longer than most.
 
At 97, she just might be the oldest life member of NEA in the hall today – and I know for sure that she’s had a big influence on me.
 
Mom, would you please stand up?

Yes, that is my mom, NEA life member Marie Van Roekel.
 
My mom gave me a most precious gift: a love of learning and a desire to instill it in others.
 
And for 30 years, my mother gave that same gift to student after student after student.
Thank you, Mom.
 
Every day, individual educators change the lives of students.
We have also changed lives through the collective work of this great organization.

In 1857—154 years ago—a call went out for educators to come together in Philadelphia and form a national organization that would elevate the profession and advocate for public education.

Just think --1857 – that was four years before the Civil War began….did you know that call was extended not just to white teachers, but black teachers as well?

We won the first federal funding for education as early as 1867!

The first woman President of NEA was elected a full 10 years BEFORE women even had the right to vote!

We endured through the Stock Market crash of 1929 when 100,000 schools were closed, students went to school less than six months per year, 160,000 teachers were out of work – and those who never really embraced the notion of public education began to use the economic crisis as an excuse to cut funding for schools.  Doesn’t that sound familiar?

We were on the front lines of school desegregation, and we can look back with great pride at the 1966 merger of the NEA and the ATA—the association for black teachers.

We helped pass the law that created the US Department of
Education.

You see, we haven’t just walked through history.  We have made history.

NEA has experienced some of its finest hours during the toughest times.
 
Today we’re at another crossroads …another moment in history.

A moment that compels us to stand up for our values and our worth … to speak out for our students and our profession …

And to take a stand for the future of this country.
 
Every day you watch more and more students being crammed into classrooms, yet somehow you keep them all engaged.
 
Every day you look into the frightened eyes of children whose parents have lost their jobs, and you become their rock.
 
Every day you see colleagues who have lost their jobs and their rights, or who are being blamed for their state’s fiscal woes, and you stand united with them.
 
And all the while, as you are working through these challenges, an incredible madness is swirling all around us.

The election of 2010 shifted the balance of power, nationally and in many states.  Since then we have seen attacks on public education and public employees in state after state.

Many of these attacks have targeted our very existence, by attempting to strip our collective bargaining rights and our ability to collect dues.  They’re trying to silence our voices and end democracy in the workplace.

These attacks have nothing to do with improving education.

They have nothing to do with closing state budget deficits.

They have nothing to do with any kind of “reform.”

And most important of all – they have nothing to do with helping students succeed.
 
These attacks are about politics, pure and simple. Some politicians – like New Jersey Governor Christie, Wisconsin Governor Walker, Florida Governor Scott, Ohio Governor Kasich - want to destroy anyone who stands in the way of their extreme agenda. 
 
And their big political donors — like the Koch brothers — want to silence us because they know that we are a strong voice for middle class families in this country.

They know that we’ll fight any agenda that puts corporate CEOs in the front of the line and working families and students at the back.
 
Part of the madness in our country is an economy that is way out of balance.
 
In 1960 a CEO made 42 times the average worker’s salary - today it’s 260 times the average worker.
 
In 1974 the top one percent of wage earners got 9 percent of the total income.
 
In 2007, that same one percent received about 24 percent of all income. That’s right:  the top one percent got nearly a quarter of all the income!
 
The top tax rate for the most wealthy has dropped from 70 percent to 35 percent.
And taxes on capital gains—one of their largest sources of income—are only 15 percent.
 
So the rich keep getting richer, while the middle class struggles to hold on to what they have. That’s the landscape of our country today in 2011.
 
But as we gather here in Chicago at our Representative Assembly,
I have a message for all of those union-busting, greedy CEOs and their political pals:
 
Number one, we are not going away; our voice will not be silenced … we will continue to Stand Strong for students, for public schools, and our members. 
 
And number two, whether our opponents realize it or not, their attacks on education have energized and mobilized the 3.2 million members of the NEA like never before! 
 
Right after the 2010 election, our members asked for a strategy to deal with this new world we faced.
 
NEA responded forcefully. We sat down with all of our state affiliates and mapped out a powerful game plan for meeting these new challenges head-on. 
 
We reached out to our friends in the labor movement across the country, and began working with them more closely than ever.
 
Then the war on students, public employees and the middle class began.
 
Alabama lawmakers fired the first shot, a ban on payroll dues deduction. Then came Wisconsin, Indiana, Florida, New Jersey, Idaho, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee – and the list goes on.
 
But we were ready, and we fought back.
 
In Alabama, we overturned the dues deduction law in court. Members lined up eagerly and proudly to switch over to a new way of collecting dues so the AEA can continue to fight for students.
 
Thank you Alabama for leading the way and Standing Strong!
 
Wisconsin — oh Wisconsin—you are the home of the first collective bargaining law for public employees.  And when Governor Walker and his cronies began their assault, you gathered one hundred thousand people at the state Capitol.

Now, WEAC is working to recall six state senators who voted to bust unions.

Thank you Wisconsin for Standing Strong!
 
In Idaho our members are also supporting a public referendum to repeal the “laptops for teachers” law. They’ve collected 50 percent more signatures than they need.

Thank you Idaho for Standing Strong!

In Michigan, in the face of relentless attacks on unions, MEA is gearing up for recall elections this summer.

Thank you, Michigan, for Standing Strong!

In Ohio, our members and friends are challenging the anti-union Senate Bill 5 – and they have collected 1,298,301 signatures to put it on the ballot! They needed three percent and two-thirds of the counties….they got twice that amount in all 88 counties.

Thank you Ohio for Standing Strong!
 
From Florida to Pennsylvania, Arizona to New Jersey, Tennessee to New Hampshire – wherever our members have been attacked, they have stood strong under fire.
 
Thank you, NEA!
 
At this convention we can stand with them by supporting an increase in the  legislative crisis fund.
 
When our affiliates reach out for help, NEA will be there. We can win this war if we stand together and stand strong. 

I’m proud of the strong defense we mounted, and I’m energized by all of the things our members and affiliates have been doing. But it is not enough.
 
Standing Strong does not mean standing still. We want to move forward - and to do that, we can’t just defend against attacks. We must lead.
 
There’s an adage; lead, follow or get out of the way. And NEA, the largest labor union in America—we have a responsibility to lead.
 
Let’s start by taking control of our own profession.

Consider the fact that 47 percent of all new teachers leave in their first five years. But some critics think that the biggest challenge in education is figuring out how to fire even more!
 
They are dead wrong. The problem is that our recruitment, training and hiring system is totally broken.
 
It makes no sense to have a system that allows anyone to try their hand at teaching... and then say we have to fire the ones who shouldn’t have been hired.  That’s crazy! 

Why don’t we instead change that system so people can’t enter the classroom in the first place unless they are qualified, properly trained, and licensed?
 
The system must change – and we can’t depend on someone else to do it.
 
For too long, we have watched and allowed evaluation systems that don’t work.
 
We’ve seen professional development come and go and it’s an absolute joke. We have watched policy makers define solutions that we know won’t work – and that we know are wrong for students.
 
The time for watching is over. It’s time to take responsibility for our profession. 

We have an incredible opportunity to take a giant step toward that goal - we can adopt the Policy Statement on Teacher Evaluation and Accountability.
 
As teachers, we know what evaluation and accountability would look like if they were really designed to improve professional practice and student learning.
 
This policy statement puts NEA on the record, for the first time, calling for a comprehensive overhaul of both teacher evaluation and accountability systems - systems that are designed to advance learning.
 
It also calls for our Association to take responsibility for ensuring the development, implementation, and enforcement of these high quality systems.
 
The voice of teachers and educators must not be silenced and marginalized by people who don’t have a clue what teaching is – folks who couldn’t survive a day in your shoes.

At the same time we fight to improve the quality of public education, we must keep fighting for equal opportunity and equity. 

This is a moral imperative.
 
Fifty-seven years after Brown vs. the Board of Education, our public schools are still unequal. Achievement Gaps are the result of Opportunity Gaps.
 
A few months ago we heard a lot about the international PISA test, when U.S. students didn’t score as high as countries like Finland and Canada.
 
What I’ll bet you didn’t hear is that if you look only at our students from schools where there is less than 10 percent poverty, they are Number One in the world.
 
So for some children, the system is working well. But not for the 20 percent of the children in this country who live in poverty.
 
And for all those so-called reformers out there:

Stop trying to convince us that poverty doesn’t matter.
 
Any teacher or para who has watched a student’s head drop in fatigue because they’re tired and hungry … knows that poverty matters.
 
Any educator who notices a child can’t read the board but doesn’t have the money for glasses … knows that poverty matters.
 
And any educator who determines a child didn’t have access to early childhood education, knows too well that poverty matters.
 
I know of no family of means in America who would deny their own children preschool, child care, good nutrition, health care and other opportunities, from soccer to music to dance to art.
 
So if our nation wants to remain strong and prosperous, why would we perpetuate a system that denies those opportunities for any child? 
 
Why can’t every public school be as good as the best ones?
 
This is what our Priority School Campaign is about.

In collaboration with our state and local affiliates,
we are empowering our members to build communities of support around those students who need it most.
 
And we are defining the solutions – not people who have never worked a day or set foot inside a school building since they were students themselves.
 
Our members are working with administrators, school board members, parents and community leaders to fulfill the promise of public education, and prepare every student to succeed.
 
Our Priority Schools work underscores the great divides that exist in our country today. We have fundamental opportunity gaps in our society - not just for students, but for their families as well. 
 
And these gaps will get wider if Americans don’t understand that there are two very different visions being offered by our nation’s lawmakers at the federal and state levels.
 
I can’t remember a time when our nation faced a starker choice.
 
And I hope we make the right choice, a choice that ensures that this country is a place where all children have equal opportunities, their own shot at the American Dream.
 
The American Dream was real for me.  Although I didn't have a lot of resources,
it was through a nation that cared about every person that I got my shot.
 
I decided in seventh grade I was going to be a high school math teacher - and for 23 years I got to live that dream.
 
I wasn’t the only one. There have been millions like me who benefitted from the G.I. Bill, the National Defense Education Act, Equal Opportunity Grants,
Pell Grants.
 
We love public education because we know it is the key that opens so many doors of opportunity.
 
And every one of us has seen that miracle, that light in a child’s eyes.
That is how we know that every person’s dream has meaning and value – and everybody deserves a shot at their dream.
 
So we devote our careers to opening doors. But right now, I can almost hear the doors slamming shut, all across America.
 
Slamming in the face of the student who gets crammed into a larger class,
and gets lost in the crowd.
 
Slamming in the face of the mother who lost health insurance for herself and her children.
 
Slamming in the face of the retiree who lost most of her retirement account in the stock market.
 
We believe that people like this are good, hard-working Americans who sometimes need a little help when times get tough.

But there are powerful forces in our country who don’t see it like that.

They want to eliminate public services and privatize everything from Social Security to Medicare.

They want to dismantle Medicaid, which provides health care to one-third of the children in the country.

They want to privatize public education so politically-connected insiders can make a profit at the expense of students and educators.

And they want to silence the voice of the middle class by dismantling our hard-won rights to bargain collectively for fair wages and decent working conditions.

None of this is speculation – these are policies that have actually been proposed in Congress THIS YEAR!

The people behind these proposals talk a lot about the Constitution, but they don’t abide by its spirit.

The Constitution says “We the People.”

And that is what our vision of America is about – policies that help the American people and keep the American Dream alive.

In 2012 we will have the power to choose between these two visions.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. The paths couldn’t be more distinct.
 
So I was taken aback recently when somebody said it really doesn’t matter who’s President. 
 
Well, if you think it doesn’t matter, I ask you to look around this room and talk to some of your friends from Wisconsin, or Florida, or Michigan, or Ohio, or Idaho,
or New Jersey, or Tennessee, or Alabama, or Arizona.
 
Ask them:
Do elections really matter?
 
Darn right, they matter!
 
That’s why NEA must take a stand at this RA and support the re-election of President Barack Obama.
 
We know that President Obama’s opponents are going to try to demonize him for the next 18 months. 
 
They hope we’ll forget about the new law that will provide health care to 32 million people, including millions of children.

They hope we’ll forget more than 63 billion dollars in education aid to states that saved hundreds of thousands of jobs—jobs that kept class size small, that helped students learn, that kept summer school and after school programs.

And they hope we’ll forget that some members of the U.S. House of Representatives have already introduced a union-busting agenda at the federal level.

But we won’t forget.
 
President Obama is the candidate for President who shares our vision for this country.
 
He has never wavered from talking about the importance of education - from pre-K to college, fighting for Pell grants, fighting for the Dream Act, fighting for struggling students.
 
That doesn’t mean we agree with all his education ideas, and I know we’ll fight like hell to fix the things that are wrong.

But that is a good fight to have – a fight over how to achieve a shared vision – rather than fighting for the very survival of public schools and the dignity of the middle class.
 
Now, some have said we need to “send a message". 

I agree.

Let's send a message…to Governor Walker, Governor Kasich, Governor Scott, Governor Christie, Rep. Paul Ryan … and the rest of these extremists.
 
Our message to them is simple: We care about every student … we care about public education….we care about this country … and we are closing ranks. 
 
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.

It belongs to our seniors who deserve to live in dignity.

It belongs to the immigrants who have made this country gloriously diverse and culturally rich – and, yes, economically prosperous.
 
So my friends, we cannot afford to stand on the sidelines – and if we want to have a real impact, we can’t wait a year to take a stand.
 
That means now is the time to make a decision.
 
Now is the time for you to choose which vision of America you want for your grandchildren.

For me it’s an easy choice.

And I know we can make a difference – just as we have for 154 years as the National Education Association.
 
I know how hard this year has been - and we aren’t going to change everything overnight.

But in a few years I think we’ll look back and see that 2011 was the year when the tide began to turn.
 
It was the year when our members became active like never before.
A year ago, we had about 150,000 activist members on our websites.

That has changed.
We now have almost 700 thousand activists!

It was a year when more and more parents realized that the over-emphasis on standardized tests is harming students.

It was the year when we took some hard shots – but when it was over,
we were still standing.
 
And today we’re not just standing – we are Standing Strong!
 
We’re standing strong for our students.

We’re standing strong for public schools.

And we’re standing strong for the American Dream.

THANK YOU, NEA – FOR STANDING STRONG!