Answering the Call
The History of the National Education Association
By Sabrina Holcomb
Last month, we witnessed the positive impact NEA had on public education at the dawn of a new century—passionately advocating for children’s right to an education and better working conditions for teachers. In part three of this series, NEA advances the cause of public education during the tumultuous first half of the 20th century.
A Journey Through Time
Educating immigrants. A multilingual teacher instructs immigrant students in an Ellis Island classroom. Schools were the true "melting pot" of American culture, where teachers were expected to assimilate large numbers of non_english-speaking children into mainstream society. Circa 1940s.
In the early 20th century, meager wages remained a critical matter for the nation’s teachers, even though their responsibilities continued to grow. Teachers taught expanded curriculums, fulfilled bureaucratic demands for increased paperwork and testing, and managed multiage classrooms with hundreds of students—many of whom were recent immigrants. A 1909 survey of major cities showed that more than half the students in any given classroom couldn’t speak English.
Teacher shortages grew, as many left the profession for higher-paying jobs elsewhere. In response, NEA formed a commission to study the problem, later issuing a major report that proposed salary schedules to help retain teachers. Based on the report’s findings, NEA renewed its push for a national Department of Education that would help fund programs to reduce illiteracy, train teachers, and equalize education opportunities for all children.
Meanwhile, NEA itself was in transition: It had grown too large to be run on an ad hoc basis by a small group of leaders and whoever showed up at the annual convention. Democratization was needed, as well as more direct connections between the national, state, and local Associations. In 1920, NEA became a Representative Assembly (RA), composed of delegates from affiliated states and locals.
Depression Devastates Schools
Throughout the 1920s, NEA focused on improving teacher pay, establishing retirement pensions, and strengthening a public school system that was rapidly expanding to accommodate a massive influx of students. But on the morning of October 29, 1929, everything came to a halt. The U.S. stock market crashed and the ensuing Great Depression devastated the country, brutally impacting the nation’s schools. As tax revenues shrunk, schools had no money for materials or supplies, and teachers copied texts longhand so there would be enough for students to use. Many schools were forced to close altogether.
NEA’s work was more important than ever. Members visited schools throughout the country, working with the media to focus public attention on the plight of schools. In 1933, NEA became a member of the newly created Federal Advisory Committee on the Emergency in Education. Under the committee’s direction, badly needed assistance and federal aid started flowing to schools.
Joint Committee for Justice
In 1926, a special committee was formed that would expand the scope and mission of NEA for years to come. At the time, many schools—and state Associations—were segregated. The Supreme Court’s doctrine of “separate but equal” had effectively sentenced Black students to unequal funding, resources, and opportunities. The Southern Association of Schools and Colleges (SASC) did not evaluate and accredit Black schools, which blocked Black students from acceptance in many colleges and universities. To address this dire situation and the overall quality of Black education, NEA and the American Teachers Association formed their first Joint Committee. The partnership succeeded—SASC eventually began to evaluate and accredit Black schools.
The War Effort
When America entered World War II in 1941, NEA played an active role in the nation’s war effort, coordinating the rationing of sugar, oil, and canned goods; promoting the sale of Defense Savings Stamps and Defense Bonds in the schools; encouraging students to salvage scrap metal and plant “victory gardens”; and successfully lobbying Congress for special funding for public schools near military bases. This emergency funding helped relieve school districts burdened with financing the education of thousands of military schoolchildren who didn’t add to the local area’s tax base because they lived on federal installations.
NEA also lobbied strongly for the G.I. Bill of Rights to help returning soldiers continue their education. In addition to providing opportunities for individual veterans, the bill would have far-reaching consequences: With more than two million veterans attending college within the next seven years, higher education was no longer a privilege for the elite.
Landmark Decision for Education
In the aftermath of World War II, America’s baby boom saw some 79 million students added to the nation’s public schools. During the 1950s, the United States was, indeed, booming, but not for all: Minorities continued to suffer inequalities in all facets of American life, including public education. Although racial segregation in public schools was the norm, NEA continued to advocate for change. In the previous decade, the Association had refused to hold Representative Assemblies in cities that discriminated against delegates based on race. It had also affiliated with 18 Black teacher’s associations in states where Black teachers were prohibited from joining White organizations.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower cutting the NEA birthday cake.
Then, in 1954, the Supreme Court made a landmark decision that became one of the most important events in education and civil rights history. In Brown v. Board of Education, the Court ordered the desegregation of the nation’s public schools, reversing its “separate but equal” doctrine and opening the door to a new era in public education. Black teachers had been largely responsible for financing the case: the American Teachers Association contributed more money to the Brown v. Board legal defense fund than any other single Black organization. After the victory, NEA’s 1954 Representative Assembly urged all Americans to approach integration in a spirit of good will and fair play.
Celebrating a Century!
In 1957, NEA held its centennial anniversary in Philadelphia, the city where it all began. During NEA’s first century, the state Associations focused on the protection and advancement of individual rights, while the national organization worked to strengthen public education, improve the credentialing of educators, and garner more respect for the profession. On its 100th birthday, NEA had over 700,000 members.
Then, two years later, another milestone was reached: Wisconsin became the first state to pass a collective bargaining law for public employees. The passage of this law, the first of many to come, helped usher in an era of teacher bargaining that would transform the Association.
Photos: AP/Worldwide, Corbis, NEA archives