Tuesday, July 15, 2014

NEA Representative Assembly and the Death of Democracy

Earlier this month I served as a first-time delegate to the NEA representative assembly.

As a fan of democracy, it was an amazing process to behold.

Over 7,000 teachers and education support personnel filled the convention hall and were all more-or-less on equal footing: permitted to enter into debate and then vote on over 100 New Business Items (NBI).

All items arise from the membership (50 members must sign on before an NBI is considered), are discussed by the membership, and then voted on by the membership.  My contribution to the five days was to shout "Aye" or "Nay" at regular intervals after huddling in caucuses to debate a stance on the upcoming items.

The annual meeting charts the funding of discretionary monies, so every item comes with a price tag. The ongoing tally is reported throughout the process so membership dues are not overspent.

I learned a lot as a first time delegate.

Democracy is complicated.  There is political wrangling throughout the whole process.  A strategy exists in getting items to the floor, getting time at the mike, asking questions for more information, moving items to debate or referring them to committee, forming caucuses to garner more support, debating on the floor, adjusting the wording of the NBIs so there's an easier price tag to swallow, etc. etc.

It was amazing.  And fascinating.  And definitely not for me--too old (it would take years to form the relationships)--too introverted--too slow in thinking.  If there's one thing I'm sure of it's that I need time to process.  This is a game for extroverted, fast-thinkers.

But in spite of my delight in the true democratic flavor of the whole event, my overriding impression of the NEA RA is:

This is going to kill us.

And by us, I mean teachers and the public schools we love.

Our "enemies" are not operating under the same rules.

Those allied against public education hold resources equal to those of small countries.  And the holders of the resources do not need to come to consensus to get what they want.  Decision making is dictatorial, or at the very least, held in the hands of an elite few.  No debating.  They can move fast. And the money has been buying access to decision makers for decades now.  We are overwhelmed.

Though most of the new business items were clearly student-centered (take that teacher-bashers who think the union is all about protecting teachers) a fair amount were actions in RE-action to the monied agenda.

We are going to lose that battle.

The democratic process is too slow--and tends to the moderate middle.  By the time the membership has moved on an issue the target has also moved, far, far down the road.

Though some alert members have been on top of the reform agenda for years, others are slow to take alarm.  It's taken three attempts for the members to agree to ask for Arne Duncan's resignation.  The majority of the membership had to see the handwriting on the wall before majority ruled. The NEA decision to call for Duncan's resignation will likely be ignored.

The very democratic process we celebrate undermines our attempts to save our other democratic ideal: the common school.

The unions (AFT and NEA) take their cues by reacting to policy, not developing and proposing an alternate policy.  Each NBI that requires funding to fend off an attack depletes resources, scatters the focus, puts us even farther behind, and turns off dues-paying members who do not see an organization that speaks for them.  The power brokers only need to wait until we we talk and vote ourselves into bankruptcy.

It was hard to shake the feeling that we are playing into their game--a waiting game.