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Toward Great Public Schools

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From July 1-6, the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in the nation's capital played host to over 10,000 elected delegates of the National Education Association's 87th annual representative assembly. Teachers, educational support and administrative personnel were joined by thousands of other allied professional and trade unionists and guests at what was billed as the world's largest democratic deliberative body.

The assembly's festive atmosphere did not diminish the fact that teachers were acutely aware that the issue of public schooling and its future is a main item on the nation's domestic agenda, especially in this presidential election year.

The NEA is set to push the in-coming administration and next Congress to promote its aims for new directions in public schooling. In this presidential election year, the NEA, one of the largest and most powerful of the country's unions, is facing serious challenges to its main goal of transforming all public schools by the year 2020 through redefining the federal role in education.

In noting how the basic national education law ---No Child Left Behind (NCLB) --- has failed, outgoing NEA president Reg Weaver (the fourth black person to hold that office) told the assembled delegates that "the federal government must move beyond testing, labeling and punishing, and begin partnering with states to close achievement gaps for all students". Moreover, Weaver held that the federal government must "focus on equity, opportunity and targeted assistance to underserved communities".

On the convention floor the delegates were very blunt about what to do with NCLB: thousands of T-shirts proclaimed that the law should be erased, re-written and then re-authorized. Several delegates interviewed went further and said the law should be abolished outright and replaced especially with new legislation more friendly towards urban students, educators and their schools.

In a show of gratitude for the assembly's overwhelming endorsement (79% of a floor vote), Senator Barack Obama applauded the 3 million plus member union for its efforts to advance its Great Public Schools for Every Student by 2020 program. Obama addressed the assembly on July 5th, via a live video feed from Butte, Montana. He noted that the NEA's program aims "provides critical starting points for a new educational compact".

In pointing to his Republican rival's record on education, Senator Obama explained to the assembly that John McCain:

"... has been in Washington nearly 30 years, McCain's got a pretty slim record on education. And when he's taken a stand it's the wrong one."
He noted that McCain's support of tax breaks for the richest Americans was disturbing, as was an equally disturbing McCain vote against allocating money to hire 100,000 new teachers. Delegates debated and voted on a whole slew of concerns ranging from views on nuts and bolts organizational concerns to issues of lingering racial, ethnic and gender divisions andwithin the teaching profession, world peace, the end of the war in Iraq to what to do about global warming. At times the intensity of debate grew very heated in the voting on over 200 resolutions, amendments to standing procedures and new business items presented to assembled delegates. Nor did delegates shy away from the troubling questions of military adventurism, torture and attacks on civil liberties, U.S. imperialism and oil dependency, the threat to attack Iran, immigration reform, reparations for enslavement, and the like. On these issues the great majority of delegates demonstrated a willingness to listen to the debates and then vote in the affirmative for progress.

In other assembly highlights, delegates tipped their hats to visiting foreign educators and human rights activists, including leaders from Latin America, Britain, Germany, Morocco and the Philippines. Thulas Nxesi, the Secretary General of the South African Democratic Teachers Union told the crowd that his union benefitted from the leadership and guidance of the NEA since the end of the apartheid era.

Next year the NEA will meet in San Diego. By then George Bush will have left office, but his educational legacy --- including his signature No Child Left Behind monstrosity --- will remain in place. Will NCBL remain as is or will it be revamped and brought into line with the NEA's position on it? If Barack Obama is elected president the NEA hopes that its bet on him will begin to pay off with friendly federal support for the goals and programs the union holds dear. Millions of public school teachers, educational support personnel, administrators, parents, communities and their student charges await progressive change.

Hopefully, they won't be disappointed.

Dr. Mahdi Ibn-Ziyad, an NEA member, lives in Camden, New Jersey. Ibn-Ziyad is also a member of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and American Association of University Professors.

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Dr. Ibn-Ziyad has demonstrated an abiding concern for racial justice, humanitarian and environmental issues and has been active as a member or leader (1988-present) in the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (Washington, DC), the (more...)
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