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NEA: It Is Time for Us to Transform Public Education

Delegates to the 2013 Representative Assembly raise their hands for student success.

During the 93rd NEA Representative Assembly and Annual Meeting held July 3-6 in Atlanta’s Georgia World Congress Center, one idea resonated above the rest: When it comes to leading a movement for student success that is real and sustainable, no one is more equipped than educators.

Greg Johnson conducts the NEA choir during 4th of July celebrations at the NEA Representative Assembly.
Scott Iskowitz/RA Today.

“We must empower our members to create change,” NEA President Dennis Van Roekel told some 9,000 delegates who attended the gathering. “Some [people] don’t like the Association’s focus on quality in the classroom and in schools,” Van Roekel said. “But if we don’t empower educators to take control of how to define quality, then who will? Congress? Governors? State politicians? Michelle Rhee? Maybe the Koch Brothers?” asked Van Roekel referring to the billionaire businessmen whose money has helped to fund scores of recent anti-worker efforts. “No,” he continued. “It must be us!”

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel delivers urges RA delegates to lead the movement for student success.
Scott Iskowitz/RA Today.

Van Roekel’s words embodied the energy and spirit of this year’s RA gathering, which also included remarks from NEA Executive Director John Stocks, Teacher of the Year Jeff Charbonneau, and Education Support Professional of the Year Donna Schulze, and focused on providing educators with new programs, professional training and support, and collaboration with other educators.

To meet this goal, the Association has launched “Raise Your Hand for Public Education”—a campaign designed to help educators across the nation become leaders in a national movement for public education. An energetic and interactive kick-off for the campaign was held July 2, and included a host of dynamic and respected educators—from the classroom and from the research community. They engaged the standing-room-only crowd in a day of professional rejuvenation and educator empowerment.

Donna Nielsen and Dr. Jerry West answer questions during the Raise your Hand event on Tuesday July 2, 2013 at the NEA in Atlanta, Georgia.
Scott Iskowitz/RA Today.

RA delegates displayed their commitment to “Raise Your Hand” by agreeing to increase annual membership dues by $3 per member—a move that will generate more than $6 million in funds specifically to provide Great Public Schools Grants (GPS Grants) to NEA state and local affiliates. Grants will support innovative projects and great ideas to boost student learning, such as successful implementation of Common Core Standards, school safety/anti-bullying programs training, and technology. They will be awarded using criteria from key elements of the Raise Your Hand campaign: successful students, accomplished professionals, dynamic collaboration, and empowered leaders.

In his July 5 remarks, Teacher of the Year Jeff Charbonneau urged delegates to turn away from the relentless negative portrayals of public schools in the media and redefine the message.

“Rather than succumb to the notion that we are failing, we must celebrate the quality education that we are providing while strengthening our resolve to further improve,” Charbonneau said. “Despite what we read in the paper, students and teachers across the nation are achieving in countless ways. It is time for us to recognize that public education is succeeding.”

ESP of the Year Donna Schulze delivered a similar empowering call to action. “I think much of the public has a distorted picture of teachers, principals, and school support staff,” Schulze said. “They’ve seen too many movies,” the Maryland paraeducator joked, adding that educators can clear up common misperceptions about educators’ daily workloads by becoming political activists.

“This is why we need to raise our hands and our voices and educate them to the truth,” said Schulze. “And for this to succeed, we need to step up and step out of our comfort zones and get politically active. Get in the game!”

Calif. Delegate Mary Figueroa-Garrison encourages fellow delegates to vote at the 92nd Representative Assembly at the Georgia World Congress Center in Atlanta, Georgia.
Photo by Rick Runion/RA Today

Delegates also honored two prominent champions of public education: Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who received the 2013 Friend of Education Award, and California Gov. Jerry Brown, recipient of the Greatest Governor Award.

Using a formula that will serve low-income and non-native English speakers, Gov. Brown made sweeping changes—the greatest in the nation and during this century—to the way California funds its public schools. Before that, Gov. Brown successfully managed a ballot initiative to regenerate funding for public schools.

“Nothing is more determinative of our future than how we teach our children,” said Gov. Brown, who addressed the RA via satellite video. “It's an honor to accept this award on behalf of the educators working every day to make our public schools better and our future brighter.”

Sen. Murray has been a tireless advocate of more preschool and literacy programs, smaller class sizes, and better education for homeless children. And she led the fight that pushed $25 billion for education jobs and Medicaid funding over the finish line in 2010.

In a nod to the importance of digital learning, delegates approved a new NEA policy that addresses equity issues related to broadband Internet access and software and technical support. The new statement also emphasizes the importance of providing prek-12 teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, and administrators with access to high-quality, interactive professional development that will help them turn digital learning and technology into instruction.

Kevin Gilbert.
Photo by Scott Iskowitz/RA Today.

Maury Koffman.
Photo by Scott Iskowitz/RA Today.

The gathering also included elections. Kevin Gilbert, president of the Mississippi Association of Educators, and Maury Koffman, president of the Michigan State University Administrative Professional Association, were each elected to a three-year term on the NEA Executive Committee.

Gilbert knows how important it is for educators to have the proper training, tools, and resources to help students succeed, says Van Roekel. “I am confident Kevin will draw on his years of experience and training, as well as his years in the classroom to deliver the promise of quality public education for every student.” Van Roekel says the Association will benefit from Koffman’s “energy and expertise.” “He keenly understands the challenges facing students and public education employees, and he is deeply committed to equity and opportunity in education.”

Great Public Schools Network

The GPS Network is a place where educators will join together to share their ideas in interactive communities, collaborate on strategies and form professional learning communities.

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