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August 5, 1998

AFT, NEA Ponder Unions' Role In Teacher Quality


Nat LaCour, the president of United Teachers of New Orleans since 1972, was elected to the full-time, salaried post, which ranks behind the president and secretary-treasurer. He is expected to earn about $175,000 a year.

A dues increase of 35 cents per member per month starting next month and another 40 cents the following September will bring per-capita national fees to $10.25 a month by next year. The revenue from the AFT membership, which is now "just a handful shy" of 1 million members, according to Secretary-Treasurer Edward McElroy, will pay for a 121 percent increase in the budget of the AFT's educational issues department; a tripling, to $3 million, of the union's advertising budget; and a 140 percent increase in expenditures on technology. The AFT is also spending 54 percent more on legislative activity and political action, Mr. McElroy said.

And finally, the union president called for teachers' salaries to be raised "to put the profession where it belongs in the hierarchy of values."

The AFT's three-day civil rights conference, held before the convention, focused on the issue of school vouchers. Although conceding that vouchers are winning greater support among minority parents, Ms. Feldman called it "outrageous" that supporters of public aid for private school tuition are now casting vouchers as a civil rights imperative.

A panel discussion on the issue included one of the pro-voucher movement's most important spokesmen, the Rev. Floyd Flake, a former Democratic congressman from New York City. The question-and-answer session afterward occasionally turned into a debate between union members and the African-American minister, whose church runs a private school. ("Black Parents at Heart of Tug of War," June 24, 1998.)

When pressed about whether his school served students with learning disabilities, Mr. Flake responded, "I'll tell you what we do have: We have students who were diagnosed as special ed who we took into our school, who the minute they came into that school, put on a uniform, and were in a disciplined environment, they changed their whole attitude and their whole approach to education."

Although the two have worked closely together, Ms. Feldman made her feelings clear to Mr. Flake. "You're dangerous because you're very effective and because you really don't represent the real power behind this movement," she said, "and I am afraid that you are providing them cover that they don't deserve."

In another session of the collective bargaining conference, Ms. Koppich released the findings of a study on the work lives of teachers in charter schools.

Based on surveys from about 230 charter school teachers, she found that by a 3-1 ratio most of the educators would choose to work in a charter school if given the opportunity to choose again. The most common reason teachers gave for their satisfaction was greater flexibility to teach as they saw fit. For many, it was more important than salary and benefits.

The survey also revealed that teachers in charter schools do not consider their local teachers' unions very important. "To teachers at charter schools, unions and associations don't have much of a place in their professional lives," Ms. Koppich said. She stressed that her findings are preliminary because charter schools are new and sample sizes remain small.

In a scene reminiscent of a national political convention, Vice President Al Gore headlined the Representative Assembly's opening day. After watching a video highlighting his life and career, the 9,968 delegates gave the Tennessee Democrat a standing ovation.

The vice president urged the politically powerful NEA to pressure Congress to enact President Clinton's school initiatives, including federal money for school construction and the hiring of 100,000 new teachers.

When Mr. Gore also complained about the Federal Communications Commission's plan to cut the total value of the "E-rate"--which will give schools discounts on telecommunications services--[NEA President] Mr. Chase stepped in to remind the delegates of their potential influence.

"There are probably 12,000 people in this hall today," Mr. Chase said. "There is no reason why our legislators cannot hear from all 12,000 of us on this issue."

In fact, many delegates made their opinions known to Congress before leaving the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, courtesy of the NEA's new and ongoing "cyber lobbying" effort.

Some 1,500 members sat down at one of two dozen personal computers and drafted e-mail messages urging their representatives in Washington to support Mr. Clinton's proposal for school infrastructure aid.

Politicking the old-fashioned way hasn't lost favor, though. Throughout the four-day meeting, NEA officials and delegates denounced the efforts of conservatives to enact "paycheck protection" measures that would make it harder for unions to raise money for political contributions.

EA leaders said that while they'll continue to fight such measures in the courts, the legislatures, and at the ballot box, the organization should examine new ways of raising political funds. In a brief update on the issue, NEA General Counsel Robert H. Chanin suggested the union look into such options as on-line banking and collecting dues via credit cards. The NEA must "develop new and creative ways to maintain our membership bases and to maintain our streams of revenue," he said.

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