Six thousand united and determined educators assembled in Orlando, FL on July 3-6 for the 2023 National Education Association Representative Assembly (RA).
It was the first full in-person RA since 2019, and the delegates made the most of it. Over a fast-paced and eventful four days, they took strong stands—including a pledge to protect LGBTQ+ students—rallied against book bans and censorship, debated new policies, honored their most celebrated colleagues, and listened to other inspiring speakers, including the President Joe Biden and the First Lady Jill Biden.
The atmosphere around this year’s RA was sober but also defiant. In 2022, educators and their students had just begun to recover from the pandemic before politicians, seeking again to delegitimize public education, waged an unprecedented campaign of censorship and intimidation on America's classrooms. That effort was led largely by politicians in Florida, which made it all essential to bring the fight to these destructive policies in Governor Ron DeSantis’ backyard.
Florida is “our ground zero for shameful, racist, homophobic, misogynistic, xenophobic rhetoric and dangerous actions,” NEA President Becky Pringle said in her rousing keynote address on day one of the RA.
It's not just lawmakers in Florida and in other states. The U.S. Supreme Court, with recent rulings on affirmative action and student loans, is also pulling the nation backwards, Pringle noted.
“This is the moment, with the residue of the pandemic lingering, with our psyches still fragile, that we must try to make sense of all that we have lost—and all that we have learned,” Pringle said. “I will always remember the tearful yet defiant Florida educator who expressed the concerns of far too many, telling me, ‘I can’t teach like this. I refuse to.’”
“Unbowed and unbroken, and with a resolve that is unwavering, NEA, you are leading the work to promote, to protect, and to strengthen public education!”
Antidote to Toxicity
The delegates also heard from U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, who declared to thunderous applause that “the time has come for us, as a nation, along with the NEA, to fight unapologetically against toxicity.”
“That disrespect comes from so-called leaders that complain about public education but sleep well at night knowing their teachers are making less than $40,000 a year. [It] comes from those who want to privatize education and starve public schools of the resources they need…and from those seeking to divide our nation by politicizing equity and inclusion.”
Cardona outlined his antidote to toxicity—which he called the “ABCs of education.” A stands for agency, where educator voices are woven into the school’s work. B is for better working conditions, and C stands for competitive salaries.
Educators have every reason to feel angry, NEA Executive Director Kim Anderson told delegates in her address on July 4. But their anger derives from love, not hate.
“Love is what gets you out of bed every morning to show up for your students—no matter what,” Anderson said. “And love is why we chose this work in the first place—a love of children and students and a deep love for the value of public education….to our students, to our communities, and to our society.”
2023 Education Support Professional of the Year Pamella Johnson echoed this message in her address to delegates. It’s this “unconditional love for our students [that] gives us the strength to keep working tirelessly even when the pay and benefits don’t reflect what we need and deserve as knowledgeable and skilled educators.”
Johnson said her goal is to “empower my colleagues to organize and advocate for our professional respect so that we can tap into our power as leaders of our schools, unions, and communities.”
Champions in the White House
Despite all the discouraging news educators have had to endure over the past year, their advocacy has also produced tremendous victories. Educators have increased education funding in several states, passed gun-safety legislation, beat back private school vouchers, and elected pro-public education lawmakers up and down the ballot.
And educators have no greater friend than President Joe Biden, who accompanied by First Lady Jill Biden, addressed the NEA RA via livestream.
In his first term in office, Biden has made huge financial investments in public education, pushed the effort to relieve educator debt, made strides toward safer communities and schools for children across the country, and amplified the voices of educators.
The First Lady described the Biden Education Pathway—the administration’s vision of public education from universal preschool through high school, with paths to both careers and college—then introduced the president as “the man who will never stop fighting for you.”
“Educators have champions in the White House,” President Biden assured the delegates and those watching online. “I know the last three years have been so difficult—we asked so much of you. I want you to know I see you, we see you, and we thank you,” Biden said.
Delegates then heard from the inspiring Helena Donato-Sapp, a 14-year-old author, speaker, artist, and activist who shared her powerful story about her multiple intersectional identities, including her learning disabilities. She encouraged the audience to value and accept individuals for who they and are—not what they can or cannot do.
A Freedom to Learn Rally
The third day of the RA kicked off with a rally outside the Orange County Convention Center. Thousands of delegates, waving signs and rainbow flags, braved the sweltering Florida sun to call for an end to book bans, silencing educators, and taking away the freedom to learn from students.
“We will show this governor, and other dictators, that they can’t take us back to the 1950s!” Florida Education Association President Andrew Spar declared to the enthusiastic crowd. “We will move forward!”
In the afternoon, delegates heard from another outstanding educator: National Teacher of the Year Rebecka Peterson.
Peterson, a high school math teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, paid tribute to every educator who makes a difference every day in students’ lives and urged the delegates to never forget that public education is all for all of us.
“As an Iranian-American woman, I stand acutely aware that liberty for us all is no guarantee. Rather, it’s a product of a nation’s people insisting: we belong to each other. Teachers, you are the ones carrying that banner.”
The 2023 Friend of Education recipient was Quinta Brunson, creator and star of the hit television show “Abbot Elementary.” Derrick Johnson, NAACP President and CEO, is the recipient of the 2023 NEA President’s Award.
2023 NEA Representative Assembly Highlights
During the RA, delegates also re-elected Becky Pringle to continue to lead educators as president of the 3 million-member NEA. Delegates also re-elected Princess Moss as NEA vice president. Additionally, Noel Candelaria was re-elected NEA secretary-treasurer.
In addition to re-electing the three leaders, the delegates also voted to elect two members to the NEA Executive Committee, which is comprised of three executive officers and six members elected at large by RA delegates. Delegates voted to re-elect to a second three-year term Mark Jewell, an elementary school teacher from Guilford County, North Carolina, and the former president of the North Carolina Association of Educators.
Shannon McCann, a middle school special education teacher and current president of the Federal Way Education Association in Washington State, was also elected to a first term on the executive committee. Previously, McCann served as chair of NEA’s Legislative Committee and was twice elected to our NEA Strategic Plan and Budget Committee.