Bob Chase Defends His Views
Originally published in Rethinking Schools Volume 11, No. 4 — Summer 1997.
NEA President Bob Chase responds to his critics.
March 13, 1997
Thank you for your letter of March 5 regarding your concerns, and thoseof the WEAC Board of Directors. … They are greatly appreciated. …
I had several reasons for giving the Press Club speech. One reason, ofcourse was to serve notice to the country and our members, in a dramaticway, that NEA is heading in a new, more assertive, direction regarding thenational debate on professional issues and education reform. Judging fromthe reaction so far from around the country, that goal is being accomplished.
I believe, as do most friends of NEA, that NEA simply cannot afford tocontinue standing along the sidelines of the education reform debate, becausethe forces arrayed against NEA are most often the same forces that are arrayedagainst the very idea of public education in America. NEA has a strong,credible, and well-deserved reputation as a union and a political force.We worked hard to achieve our union and political reputation, and it hasserved us well to now.
However, according to polls, critics, friends, the media, as well asour own members, NEA does not possess anything approaching a strong andcredible voice in the education reform debate. That reality for NEA is notonly alarming, but also dangerous for public education. Without a strong,credible voice in this arena, NEA cannot continue to protect public education;if we cannot protect public education, we cannot protect our members andtheir jobs. Of equal significance for this country: without a strong, vibrant,improved public education system, millions of children will be shortchangedin their effort to be productive citizens. …
It is very important for you and your Board to note, Terry, that in allthose speeches and discussions [that I gave when running for NEA President],I always, without exception, pointed out that NEA must never abandon itsprinciples of unionism, collective bargaining, due process, and advocacyfor our members. Since being elected NEA President, I have continued tospeak clearly about the belief. … My commitment to new unionism in noway abandons my commitment to unionism. …
As far as your admonition that I am moving the current balance between”member advocacy” and “professional” issues dramaticallytoward professionalism, you are absolutely correct. I believe that NEA mustfocus much more attention to the professional side of our organizationalequation, while maintaining our strong commitment to the advocacy side.I believe that is necessary because for the last twenty-five years or so,we have allowed our union role to dominate at the expense of our professional,educational role. This professional atrophy has created many problems forour members who struggle every day with non-traditional union issues, andare desperately looking to NEA for new directions, new leadership and guidance….
… I know these are difficult issues, but it will do none of us anygood to avoid the harsh reality of the current educational climate. Thepublic is rapidly losing confidence in America’s public schools, and asconfidence fades, privatization, in one form or another, appears more andmore viable to the public. …
Of tremendous consequence is the equally sobering fact that NEA is notviewed by virtually anyone in the education, political, social environmentas a creative, positive, and influential leader in making America’s publicschools better. Quite the contrary, NEA is increasingly viewed as an obdurateand powerful protector of the status quo, which translates to the averagecitizen as the protector of bad public education. Even worse than beingseen as irrelevant, we are seen as part of the problem. All the wishingin the world and all the organizational chest pounding we can muster willnot change that fact.
If we are to protect our members’ jobs, I believe it is folly to continuedemanding that NEA think and function the same way as in the past, whilethe education industry itself is verging on collapse. That’s what the steelunions did, and when the steel industry died, so did the jobs of hundredsof thousands of steel workers. If we in education are so charmed to thepast that we can only do things the same way as always, public educationas we have known it will soon become extinct, so will members’ jobs, sowill the ability of kids to get an education regardless of economic andsocial status.
I believe that if we are to advocate effectively for our members in thecontemporary and future environments, NEA and its state affiliates mustbe powerful and credible. I want NEA to be both, but we will soon be neitherif we continue to think and behave only as we have for the past quartercentury. NEA can do better than simply defend the status quo. We cannotstand pat, because the stakes for children, members, and the country aremuch too high.