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The State of Our Union: Turning Hope into Action

Full Text Speech of Dennis Van Roekel’s Keynote Speech at the 2010 Representative Assembly


July 3, 2010

Hello NEA! Welcome to New Orleans! To the warm and wet weather and the gracious residents.

And thank you to the Louisiana Association of Educators for their incredible hospitality.

You know, this has been a pretty tough year. I can tell you there is no group of people with whom I would rather be today than you – the delegates to the 2010 Representative Assembly.

As I was preparing for this, our first business session, I re-read the speech I gave last year – and I realized that the feelings I was experiencing that day in San Diego were as meaningful as the words I was speaking. And I know that many of you shared those feelings.

 It was just six months since the historic inauguration of our new President of the United States. Like so many of you — and like so many across America – I was still inspired by the election and all the change it promised.

I talked about an eagerness to take on new responsibilities, our goals to transform public education, and our commitment to rebuild America’s middle class through a strong and vibrant labor movement.

I talked about “hope” – hope that every student in America could attend a great public school.

I talked about opportunity and possibility.

Oh, we were ready for change. We were ready to leave No Child Left Behind behind us forever! We were poised for four years of positive and creative collaboration.

Oh, we were ready for change, and we had hope.

Well . . . a few things got in the way of that hope and the change.

How could any of us have known how deep and long the economic crisis would be and its devastating impact on our students, our members, and our schools?

Who could have anticipated the freefall of confidence in American institutions -- from Congress to business to government at all levels?

None of that was in the promise of change.

Nor did I anticipate, as one writer called it, “the rage in America,” –the divisiveness, and the way the politics of anger distorted the politics of promise.

And now – America faces an uncertain future, one with intolerable consequences for its students and the very fabric of our system of public education.

We see those consequences in New Jersey where an out-of-control, arrogant governor is destroying one of the finest systems of public education in the country by cutting more than 800 million dollars in school aid while he gives millionaires a tax break!

We see the consequences in California where $4 billion in cuts will result in 20,000 lost jobs, doubling of class size, closing of elementary school libraries, and eliminating art, music, and PE in scores of schools.

We see those consequences in massive cuts in higher education at a time when more students than ever want to attend college.

We see those consequences with cuts in the ranks of our ESP members whose jobs are essential to students in every school in America.

We see those consequences affecting nearly 300,000 public school employees who could be losing their jobs because Congress still hasn’t finished passing the Education Jobs bill.

That same Congress bailed out Wall Street and the “too big to fail banks.” They saved the auto industry; and they even allowed the very CEOs -- whose greed caused these crises -- to walk away with their pockets bulging.

If ever there was evidence of upside-down priorities – this is it! This is an upside-down priority.

The first hurdle was passed on Thursday when the House passed the jobs bill. And it passed because of you. It’s because you made thousands of calls, sent thousands of letters, and bombarded your representatives with e-mails.

And we owe a special nod to Congressman David Obey of Wisconsin for his leadership.  But, the Senate still needs to act. 

We see too many members like Gina Frutig, a single mother of two, who was a fourth-grade teacher in the Durham, North Carolina, Public Schools. I say, “was” because Gina is one of the many teachers who is now unemployed.

In late April, she was told that her contract would not be renewed.

She told her story to the North Carolina legislature and to the U.S. Congress, and I want to share some of what Gina told them.

“My own family is feeling the economic pinch, but this crisis is bigger than us. Budget cuts mean that my fourth-grade students will be in classes that are 50 percent larger when they return to school in the fall.

“As a teacher, I know overcrowded classes mean less attention for each student; as a parent, I am worried that my children will lose ground academically.

“I know that budgets have priorities. I understand priorities … My students need me in the classroom, my own children need me providing food and shelter for them, and I need YOU to make ME a priority.”

Gina, you and thousands like you should be a priority in every state.

But, in states like Louisiana, Colorado, and Florida, some policymakers propose laws that disrespect educators and trample employee rights and then call it education reform.

In nearly every state, our pensions are under attack. Forces are at work telling governors and state legislators that public school employees should be denied pension plans because they are making us rich!

Rich? I mean, really! Is being middle class now the definition of rich in America? No. And I’ll tell you, like me, our members are flat-out angry with state and local officials who accept no responsibility for the roles they play.

We’re tired of the casual way too many armchair politicians and pundits blame teachers and our unions for every problem in a school and label all public schools bad, regardless of what is working and regardless of the facts.

So I have a question for you ... is this the change you hoped for? Is this the change you wanted? No!

Plain and simple, this is not what we hoped for or what I hoped for.

Today, our members face the most anti-educator, anti-union, anti-student environment that I have ever experienced.

The unfounded attacks on our salaries, pensions, rights, credentials, schools, and students are out of control, and, yes, our members are angry, and I’m angry, too!

We hoped for a federal government that would create programs to help students in need.

And what did we get?  We got Race to the Top!

What a challenge that has been! What a challenge that has been!

Our affiliates have responded in the best possible way. Delaware and Tennessee were among the affiliates at the table to shape their states’ proposals. But other states were absolutely shut out of the process.

So the result is, too many states are getting nothing; too many students are getting nothing.  And that’s just not the way it ought to be.

We are not alone in our criticism of Race to the Top. Voices of opposition are coming from more than just educators.

Recently, the National Council of Churches of Christ, with a membership of 45 million people, sent a letter to President Obama and Congress, expressing deep concern about the priorities of Race to the Top.

The letter criticizes the administration’s efforts to push states to increase the number of charter schools, its punitive approach to dealing with low-performing schools, and the “ugly” demonization of public school teachers.

While we applaud the administration for its commitment to fund education, our members are frustrated by the disconnect between what they need each day to support their students and the federal policies that hold up struggling students as “products to be tested.”

And then there is the School Improvement Grant program. In truth, the money attached to this program is vital to our at-risk students.

But why deliver Race To The Top, School Improvement Grants or any federal program in ways that incite chaos in the states, give insufficient time to plan, challenge our contracts, ignore state laws, and cause the teachers in Central Falls, Rhode Island and Beach High School in Georgia to be fired? Who in the world will be the next ones to be victims of this kind of law?

During the presidential campaign, candidate Obama said that teachers should not be forced to spend the year preparing students to fill in bubbles on standardized tests and that students deserve to learn in an individualized manner.

We agreed with that statement when we went to the polls, and we agree with that statement today. Mr. President, your instincts were right – the path your advisors have laid out is not!

We got a system that creates too few winners and far too many losers. Our members feel betrayed – and so do I!

I’ve had enough of a system where some schools have fabulous, meaningful programs – and some don’t.

I’ve had enough of being told to do more with less.

And I’ve had enough of the fixation on standardized tests and making them the sole measure of a student’s learning and a teacher’s worth.

Too many people call this change – well, I demand a different kind of change!

I want us to build from our extraordinary history and the amazing talents of our members. I want to move past just fighting bad ideas, spending millions of dollars on ballot measures, and stopping lousy legislation only to define victory as staying where we are. The status quo is not acceptable!

I won’t settle for just for fighting the good fight.

And I'm not willing to settle for just holding the line.

I want more.

I demand more from our policy makers!

I want us to look at this moment and say we saw the opportunity and we seized it. 

I want us to help make public schools better, keep more students in school, and make this union stronger. 

My fellow NEA members ... the time to turn hope into action is now!

WE are the people who can stop this madness! WE are the people who can make all public schools great!

Despite the attacks against us as professionals and as union members … despite the outrageous rhetoric against us … despite the slashing of funding for our schools … I tell you without hesitation that the state of our union is strong. Oh, we are strong.

We might be having a tough time this year with layoffs and loss of funding for schools,  but let me just put this in perspective....

In the last 26 years, NEA has grown ... just a little ...

Our K-12 professional membership has increased by 48 percent!

Higher ed by 158 percent.

Student members by 191 percent.

Retired educators by 605 percent, and

ESPs by a phenomenal 960 percent!

Over the past 26 years, NEA’s membership has grown by 1.6 million members ... by 103 percent ... to 3.2 million members!

So yes, fellow delegates, the state of our union is strong!

We are unified; we make a difference every day; we know which programs work and which programs are garbage!

We know who supports our goals and our schools, and we are ready to be their partners.

And let me be clear. To the politicians, foundations, and community leaders out there, I say: if you respect our members and their rights as professionals, if you want to work with us and not against us, if you share our genuine commitment to fulfill the promise of public education for every student, you will never have better friends to do in the work to improve public schools than the leaders and 3.2 million members of the NEA.

Yes, the state of our union is strong ... so let us be strong! Let’s use ALL the tools we have to transform the American system of public education. Let’s combine the incredible skills we have at our disposal and make sure every community in America has great public schools.

Let’s do what we do best – let’s take back our place as America’s educational leaders!

Let’s create our moment!

We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.

Throughout our 153-year history, we’ve had game-changing moments. Our predecessors didn’t wait for the perfect moment. They created their own moment.

The Wisconsin Education Association Council leaders created their moment in 1959 when they secured the nation’s first collective bargaining law.

NEA leaders created one of their finest moments in 1966 when they embraced racial equality and merged with the American Teachers Association.

And NEA created the moment in 1972 when we decided to become actively involved in political action.

And in 1980, NEA created a stellar moment when we granted full membership rights to education support professionals and welcomed them into our union.

My friends, let’s make 2010 our moment.

Let’s speak up. Let’s take action. Let’s fight for the students of America.

I’m ready to take any risk, walk any path, and partner with anyone who believes in America’s public schools.

I believe in the NEA. I believe in the strength of our 3.2 million members. And I believe that together we can do anything we put our minds to. And it’s time for us to take charge of the agenda.

Every day in cities and small towns across the country, I know you are working your hearts out to help students – and I know how especially difficult it is in low-performing schools. I know the challenges you face. And I know that you should not have to do that alone.

I’m proud that – thanks to actions taken by the Representative Assembly last year – NEA members and leaders all across the country are involved in our Priority Schools Campaign – a national grassroots effort of our members to help students in low-performing schools stay in school and succeed.

If we work together, we can open opportunities for tens of thousands of students – day by day, one building at a time, and one student at a time. WE can seize the moment …WE can transform schools…WE can turn hope into action. 

Reach out to others in your community and ask them to take the pledge to help students succeed.

We’re reaching out right here in New Orleans!

Right next door to this arena is the fabulous Essence Festival.

And our student NEA members are there asking visitors to make the pledge to join NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign … and they are signing up!

 We know that while we can perform miracles each day, we cannot overcome all the effects of poverty. We know that we need others to join with us and lend a hand to help students succeed.

We need to find new ways to bring families into our circle of partners. Our ESP members are absolute geniuses at organizing. So I’m calling on all ESP members to help us make the circle of partners even larger.

And we’re reaching out to collaborate with partners who can help with programs, support, and resources.

Across the country, NEA is working with community leaders and businesses – like AT&T and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America – to bring change to these schools and together create a new future for the students in those classrooms.

And that new future will begin in September when we host a National Summit on Family, School, and Community Engagement.

This Summit will bring to one table national leaders of education, faith-based, civil rights, and social service groups to figure out how together we can do a better job keeping kids in school and keeping families engaged with their schools.

Yes, it’s true; it does take a village – so we are creating a village of leaders who will devote their energies to developing positive programs.

We must also use our collective strength to bring about changes on the national level.

Reauthorization of ESEA is right around the corner – and there is no time to lose.

We must not allow another bad ESEA.  Because if they take the old NCLB -- fancy it up and call it the "new" ESEA -- I think we ought to call it TNT and blow the damn thing apart!

Let’s make it right! 

Delegates:  Tomorrow morning in your state caucuses, I’m asking you to seize the moment and turn hope into action by sending a clear and concise message to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.

Waiting for each of you will be postcards on which I am asking you to write three things you don’t want in the new ESEA and three things that must be included.

We will deliver all nine thousand postcards to the Secretary of Education. I’m also asking every state president to plan and implement a day of action between now and the end of September to send a message to Congress.

Think about it ... there are only 535 of them ... 100 in the Senate and 435 in the House of Representatives… and they are the ones who will decide what happens to ESEA.

Do the math ... there are 3.2 million of us … 535 of them. That’s 6,000 NEA members for each member of Congress. I say we can and we will influence the outcome of this debate.

Between now and the end of September, imagine you and thirty of your best friends arriving at your Senator’s district office, maybe with coffee and donuts and announcing to the receptionist, “Hi, we’re here to see our Senator! We have a few ideas of our own we’d like to share about ESEA.”

Imagine every Representative getting hundreds of e-mails every single day.

And then, imagine this happening in every state – in every Congressional district – can you hear the conversations at their lunch tables when they get back after recess?
But I’m not telling you how to do it or what to do. You know what works best in your state – you develop the plan.

State presidents:  I am asking each of you to seize the moment and take action. ESEA will be voted on soon. Be creative – find a way to impact all 535 members of Congress by the end of September.

Speak up ... tell Congress that the reauthorization of ESEA should include real funding and not require us to compete for resources.

Tell them that ESEA should be based on good policies for students and educators– policies that meet the needs of every student and that close achievement gaps.

Tell them that ESEA should scrap AYP – and instead – actually support student learning!

And tell them to replace NCLB’s mind-numbing, high stakes, pass-fail testing system with a system of multiple measures and a focus on student growth!

Now I know that some of you are thinking that politicians are the last people you want to talk to right now. I know that you are disappointed and angry – that you feel betrayed by some of the people we helped elect to office.

Some have even suggested to me that it’s time for us to really “show them” – time to “teach ‘em a lesson” – that we ought to stop engaging in politics and sit out the 2010 election. It would definitely mean a lot less work for all of us, and we’d save lots of money.

But my friends, if we are not activists in politics, we will be the victims of politics.

Who will speak for education if it is not us? Will the scenario be better or worse -- for America's students, for America's educators, for America herself if we sit on the sidelines and refuse to participate?

We simply cannot sit it out ... there is too much at stake.

But make no mistake. I’m talking about standing up for those political leaders who stand up for us, those who have proven their words with their deeds.

But to elected leaders who do not fight for students and great public schools – I say -- do not take us for granted.

Let us seize the moment with me and create a scenario that will work for us and not against us.

Let’s take responsibility for what will be.

Let’s make a pledge to ourselves to help create a school system that involves the whole child, the whole family, and the whole community.

Let’s break the mold and embark on a new course that requires the courage to do things differently.

Let’s demand the right to be the ones in charge.

Let’s be willing to question the status quo – and that means questioning our own status quo.

It’s been said, “Our lives improve only when we take chances. And the first and most difficult risk we can take is to be honest with ourselves.”

So let’s be honest and ask the tough questions.

If we are angry about what others do to us and how they do it, if we believe that those who are on the front lines know better than those shouting from the outside, then shouldn’t we figure out how to take charge of our profession?

Imagine going beyond just “being at the table” to running the meeting.

This isn’t just some pipe dream.

Today, I am taking on the future of our profession.

Today, I’m creating our next moment.

I am calling for the creation of the NEA Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching.

I am calling for this Commission to wrestle with the critical issues facing our profession.

I want its members to focus on the professional practices that make a difference in student learning.  

The Commission should tackle the questions that have been avoided for far too long.

How can we better lead our own profession?

What would the profession look like if we—the union—actually controlled teacher training … induction and licensure … evaluation and professional development?  How do we ensure that all teachers are prepared to enter the profession and then are supported, especially in their first years?

The Commission will issue a public report on how teachers can take greater authority over their profession, the quality of teaching, and quality of public schools. From that report, NEA will offer recommendations to the RA next summer.

My fellow delegates, you, and our members around the country have talents and creativity beyond compare.

You have the energy and instincts to create a new system of public education.

Four years ago, we adopted a new vision, mission, and core values that speak to the heart of who we are and why we exist.

We reaffirmed our role as advocates for our members – knowing that by advocating for our members, we are advocating for our students in every public school in America.

Our mission calls for forming a more perfect union, not just among NEA members, but for our nation as a whole … to unite NEA members and our nation to fulfill the promise of public education... to prepare every student to succeed.

Ours is a powerful mission – one that calls upon each of us to be leaders in fulfilling that promise – and it is worthy of our long history as stewards of public education.

I ask you to seize this moment and focus our energy on the next generation of America’s public schools.

This is our moment to create models that will work in schools across the country – models that can be adapted to fit the unique communities in which we work.

I know that you are already creating new and exciting models that can be replicated across the nation.

Don’t keep them a secret!

Let’s throw open the doors to every school and every classroom – we are not afraid – and tell everyone they are welcome to come in and see what extraordinary miracles we perform every day!

And let me be the first to issue an invitation to the naysayers who accuse us of being obstructionists and defenders of the status quo.

To each of them I say, instead of telling the public that our system of public education is failing; instead of telling parents that the best schools can only be charter schools; instead of threatening my colleagues and linking their futures to a series of meaningless, fill-in-the-bubbles tests!

Instead I say ... Come to Oklahoma, to Putnam City West HS, where the staff and union boosted the Hispanic students’ graduation rate by 70 percent.

Come to Evansville, Indiana, where the administrators and union launched an equity schools project that transforms schools through real professional development.

To those critics I say come with me to Denver, Colorado, where teachers, the union, and parents work together on the Math and Science Leadership Academy.

Come with me from California to Connecticut, from Alaska to Alabama! Come with me to every state and see what we are doing in America's public schools.

Talk to us. Listen to us. Collaborate with us.

Seize the moment!

Theodore Roosevelt once said to the American people, “We have too much to do to sit on the sidelines. We need you to step out of the gray twilight into the bright sunshine so that we can all see the dawn of a new day.”

So today I am asking each of you to come with me into the bright sunshine and take action ... speak up for public education, for students, and for yourself. Be proud of your profession and support your union.

I’m asking you to seize the moment!

To all the local presidents in this hall I say ... have the courage to challenge the status quo. Bring together your most trusted colleagues and those who challenge you at every turn.

Delegates, change is often a frightening thing, but remember – you are never alone – you are a member of the National Education Association.

Real change starts with those who lead and we are those leaders.

Our job as NEA leaders is to empower our members.

Our job is to lead the change we want to see in our schools. 

Our job is to create the future we believe in!

I've talked about our vision of great public schools for every student.  I've called for action, from post cards to rallies.  And I've called for us to take charge of our profession. 

Remember . . .

“Vision without action is merely a dream.

Action without vision just passes the time.

But vision with action can change the world.”  

My fellow NEA members ...

Now is the time to create the future for our profession...

Now is the time to change the world for our students...

Now is the time to turn hope into action.

We are the ones -- this is our moment.

We are the NEA!

Thank you, delegates.



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