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Unfinished Business

As we celebrate NEA’s 150th anniversary, we must look ahead.

This year marks the sesquicentennial of the National Education Association. That’s a fancy way of saying that this is NEA’s 150th birthday, and what a journey it has been!

NEA was born in one of the most troubled times of our nation’s history—the eve of the Civil War. It was a time when the idea of universal public education as we know it today was still just that—an idea. Until the mid-1800s, school was still a privilege in most parts of the United States, and an education was an opportunity only open to the well-to-do.

That began to change after the Civil War, as reformers demanded that education be available for all children. And the NEA was a part of that fight. By 1918, every state had enacted a requirement for all students to attend at least elementary school, which was enough for most people at that time. As the pace of change accelerated through the 20th century, education became more important, and all along the way, our Association was at the forefront of the fight to expand and enhance public education.

From the very first day, NEA has fought not only to improve the lives of our members; we have fought to also enrich the lives of every child in America and to empower our children to reach for their dreams.

We’re proud of that history. And we’re proud of the fact that today, NEA is the largest organization of public school educators in the world. What makes us special, however, is not our storied past or our size. What makes the National Education Association special is our mission and the NEA members committed to advancing that mission.

We can all celebrate our organization’s rich history and our varied accomplishments in the last 150 years. We can be proud to be part of an organization that led the effort to professionalize teaching, to ensure that all educators are treated with dignity and respect, and to improve educational achievement and attainment for all students, essential work that has made NEA a flagship for democracy and inclusiveness and so much more.

But can we rely only on the glories of our past to move us forward? Or shall we use our 150th year as a springboard for change?

In 1900, with our nation’s economy built on farming and textile mills, the fact that fewer than 10 percent of the children in America graduated from high school wasn’t really a problem. But we have now entered the era of the knowledge economy, in which a quality education will be more critical than ever. Today, the high school dropout rate has risen to crisis proportions, and Team NEA is leading the charge to address this shameful trend.

We have also launched a tenacious effort to close achievement gaps and provide public schools that are well-funded and world-class because we know that our ability to compete globally depends on how well we prepare all of our students—black, brown, or white, native born or immigrant, poor or prosperous.

Rather than rest on past laurels, we are translating the lessons we’ve learned into sound, achievable policies that will truly help every child succeed. Last year we adopted a simple and powerful vision statement: a great public school for every student. Although this statement is new, the vision itself is not. It has always been the driving force behind the work of the National Education Association. And it will continue to be the driving force for Team NEA as we work together to realize this vision and continue our legacy of leadership into the 21st century. 

NEA President Reg Weaver
Photo: Leslie E. Kossoff/NEA

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