The National Education Association

Don Closson


Merely mentioning the National Education Association can be risky. Many see it as an enemy both to education and traditional family values in America. As the nation's largest, most powerful union, capable of electing presidents and influencing politics at every level, many feel that it is out of control and often acts contrary to the conservative views of many of its members and the taxpayers who ultimately pay for its existence. There are those within this camp that see a dark conspiracy within the NEA: to keep our children uneducated and subject to an evermore centralized, socialistic national government which will eventually be absorbed by a global, one-world system.

Others, often those within the professional community of educators, see the organization as the only hope for improving education in America and for acquiring true professional pay and status for teachers. To them, the NEA is the champion of democratic education, seeking excellence and equity in the classrooms of our nation and beyond. As in most issues, the truth probably lies somewhere between these two extremes.

Teachers who join the union usually belong to one of two groups. The first group joins for access to specific union benefits. One is liability insurance. Lawsuits for sexual harassment, physical abuse, and racial discrimination have grown steadily in the last few decades and can threaten a teacher's job and reputation. Another benefit is protection against hostile board members with petty grievances through the local collective bargaining agreement. Unfortunately, both are necessities in today's education business. These teachers also feel that the NEA is their best hope for obtaining higher salaries and a voice in the administration of their schools.

The other group joins because they have to, their school district has agreed to allow a closed shop to exist, where all teachers must pay some level of union dues. Few teachers join because they wholeheartedly believe in the political and social agenda of the NEA. The union is often far left of its membership on many issues. One thing that can be agreed on by everyone is that the NEA is very large, very wealthy, and very powerful. Recently surpassing the Teamsters in size, the NEA has over 2 million members, making it the largest union in America. Past Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander once said that, "After the post office, schools are the most unionized activity in America."(1)

Actually, the NEA is an interesting mixture of union, insurance company, and political party. In the 1960s the NEA, which was founded in 1857 as a professional association, was transformed into a labor union. Since then, it has placed much more emphasis on monetary issues and political power than on educational theory and practice. One example is its association with the Prudential Life Insurance Company. The NEA receives about $10 million a year, or 30% of the premiums members pay for NEA marketed insurance.(2) In the political realm, national and state affiliates have been spending tens of millions of dollars to influence legislation across the country. Although William Bennett referred to the NEA as the "heart and center of the Democratic Party," it is active in both national political parties.(3) In the past, it has boasted of having more delegates at both the Democratic and Republican national conventions than any other organization.

Now let's turn our focus to the influence of the NEA on the educational community and the nation at large.

Social Issues

In the NEA's magazine NEA Today, a recent article about gay rights describes the case of a teacher who had been beaten and robbed by a man he had just met on a city street after inviting him to his home for sex. The man who attacked the teacher was captured, prosecuted, and given a sentence of 37 to 75 years in jail. Upon discovering the actions of its teacher, the local school board fired him claiming that he had "offended the morals of the community and set a bad example to the youth whose ideals a teacher is supposed to foster."(4) With the help of the State NEA attorney the issue was brought to arbitration, and it wasdetermined that the district did not have just cause to fire the teacher. It was held that there was no evidence that the teacher's conduct rendered him "unable to perform the requirements of a classroom teacher."(5)

The article, submitted by the NEA Office of General Counsel, argues that "it's simply a matter of time before the Supreme Court definitively rules that discrimination against homosexuals violates the Constitution.(6) The article charges the religious right with wanting teachers to indoctrinate children to hate gays and lesbians and keep them from teaching. What is interesting about this article is that it is void of any reservations concerning the issue, even though our general society, the parents whose children will be most affected by this policy, is much less sure about the wisdom of placing gay and lesbian teachers in our classrooms.

The next issue's letters to the editor included some interesting responses. One reader mentions how tempting it is for the NEA to use its size and power as a "bully pulpit." However, the writer chastises the NEA's "politically-intrusive national leadership," and asks that it, "get back on track and leave off the partisan political cheerleading.(7) Another writer shares that if she has to teach the sexual habits of a few families to her first grade children, she will quit. She adds, "Public education is in plenty of trouble. Let's not make more.(8)

Homosexuality is not the only social issue that the NEA leadership has taken a radical, absolute stand on. The NEA has supported socialized medicine, statehood for Washington D.C., gays in the military, and abortion rights. All of these issues are far from settled nationally. It has also taken stands on everything from the Holocaust to sexual relationships between college students and their professors, from the protection of senior citizens to highway safety.

The NEA is very confident that increased government spending can and will solve the nation's problems. It has rarely seen a government program it didn't like. Homelessness, unemployment, health concerns, crime, and racial tensions all demand national, federal programs. Even education, which has traditionally been a local enterprise, must be funded and controlled by the federal government if progress is to be made. According the one researcher, the NEA's strategy includes the "delegitimizing of all authority save that of the state, the degradation of traditional morality, and the encouragement of citizens in general and children in particular to despise the rules and customs that make their society a functional democracy.(9)

Educational Reform

Most Americans have come to the conclusion that some type of major educational reform must take place in our nation's schools, particularly those in our inner cities. There is good evidence that just spending more money is not the answer. An example is Jersey City, New Jersey, which spends over $9,000 per student a year, yet only 40% of its students graduate and many who do are illiterate. Things got so bad the state took control of the city's schools in 1989. Unfortunately, not much has changed since then.

Something did happen in May of 1993. Bret Schundler, a conservative Republican was elected mayor. What's more, in this Democratic stronghold, Schundler ran on a pro-voucher platform, winning 69% of the vote. His plan is to issue vouchers to parents worth one-half of the $6000 that the state sends to Jersey City for each student. Parents can then choose which school to send their children to, public or private. Just as voucher plans in Colorado and California attracted the attention of the NEA, so did this one.

The voucher plan is at the top of a list called "Battles to Come" published by the NEA's New Jersey affiliate.(10) This publication includes a warning from NEA president Keith Geiger about the evil of money being diverted to private schools and asks local teachers to authorize a deduction from their paychecks to elect anti-choice legislators in future elections.(11)

When it wants to, the NEA and its affiliates can play hardball with education reform initiatives. In 1992, when Californians were trying to get a voucher plan on the 1994 statewide ballot, the NEA pulled out all the stops. They have been accused of blocking would- be signators' access to the petition, sabotaging the petition with fake names, and even offering a signature-collecting firm $400,000 to decline the pro-vouchers group account. In response to these charges the president of the California NEA affiliate stated that "there are some proposals that are so evil that they should never even be presented to the voters. We do not believe, for example, that we should hold an election on `empowering' the Ku Klux Klan. And we would not think it's `undemocratic' to oppose voting on legalizing child prostitution.(12) Most parents would find amazing this correlation between their right to choose their children's school and legalizing child prostitution.

The NEA is very active in either controlling or defeating other less controversial reforms as well. When Lamar Alexander, as governor of Tennessee, tried to institute a series of reform proposals he was repeatedly blocked by the union. Even though the plan included the largest tax hike in the state's history and would have raised teacher salaries by 20% over three years, the union fought vociferously against the "career ladder" approach to raises that would have raised salaries of the best teachers first. Although the union was able to kill the legislation initially, it passed in a later session. Alexander was able to push the legislation through when polls revealed that 61% of Tennesseans favored the career ladder concept.(13)

Looking back at his experience with the NEA, Alexander states that "Only a very determined governor has the influence to marshal enough power to overcome [NEA affiliate] opposition.(14)

The NEA and Political Power

The uniqueness of the National Education Association is found in the fact that it is a near monopoly supplier of teachers to a government enforced monopoly consumer, the public schools. As the NEA has grown in power politically, it has also been able to govern the destiny of this public school monopoly to its own benefit. Since the NEA is a union, it acts like a union. It works diligently to defeat any reform that will limit its control over teacher certification, job security, and teachers' working environment. Irving Kristol has written that, "Their idea of reform is more public expenditure so that there will be more teachers working fewer hours, receiving better pay and having the ironclad security of tenure."(15) It is important that the public realize that money and power are the primary goals of the NEA.

The use of the NEA's power begins at the very top of our political system. In its marriage to the Democratic party, the NEA has worked to dominate its platform and nomination process. According to one Wall Street Journal editorial, at the last Democratic convention, one-third of the delegates were either a member of, or were married to a member of, the NEA. This marriage makes sense given the goals of the union and the ideals of the Democratic party. Both tend to see the centralization of power and resources at the federal level as an answer to almost any social ill. The NEA applauds President Clinton's Goals 2000 plan because it takes a big step towards a national curriculum and national teacher certification. Both actions centralize power at the top, allowing for greater influence or control by the union.

NEA president Keith Geiger is ecstatic over the passage of the Goals 2000 legislation. In a recent NEA Today article Geiger applauds the fact that we finally have a president who recognizes the role that the federal government should play in education, the role of defining and ensuring quality education for each student. The Union is also pleased with the President's attempt to pass reauthorization legislation of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. It includes increased funding for various programs and provides more money for teacher training. Both of these bills greatly increase the centralization and bureaucratization of education in America. Both represent a movement away from local control of schools, something that the NEA welcomes.

If local control of schools can't be done away with completely, the union often works to control the local board thus having command over both the labor and management sides of the bargaining table. A recent Wall Street Journal article noted that a local NEA affiliate organized and funded a recall campaign against three newly elected board members. Two of them were removed after serving only six months, a third barely survived the attack. Money and consulting was provided by the California Teacher's Association. The purpose of the recall strategy was to force the board to distribute money from a recent sale of school properties to teachers and to get rid of the district superintendent; both goals were accomplished.

As the NEA continues to grow in power politically and economically, it will not hesitate to influence all levels of our political system to acquire control over public and private education.

What Should Parents Do?

Thus far in this essay we have looked at some of the social, political, and educational activities of the National Educational Association. These activities need timely and appropriate responses, but it isn't always easy to know where to begin. What then should our response be to the growing influence of the nation's largest union?

First, parents should play an active role in local school board elections and school district policy-making. Even with all of their money and influence, the NEA can rarely overcome large scale participation by concerned parents in a local district. Concerned parents in Plano, Texas, recently elected three conservative, Christian board members, even though local teachers had been working for the opposition.

Concerned parents should make use of whatever local control is still available. Educators are realizing that unless they have the support of parents and the community they will have a difficult time in implementing reforms of any type. Recent reversals in Colorado and Pennsylvania of extensive outcome-based curricula are glaring examples. Well organized, informed parents may be the only real counterbalance to NEA influence. Not enough can be said for getting involved with your local schools. Meet with your children's teachers, talk with the principal, attend school board meetings. Parents can no longer assume that their local school is acting as a constructive partner in the mental, emotional, and spiritual development of their children.

On the other hand, parents shouldn't assume that teachers are enemies just because they may be members of the NEA. Many NEA members disagree with their union's ideology and political goals. A large number voted for Reagan and Bush, in spite of their union's endorsement of Carter and Dukakis.

For Christians in education there is a new professional organization that is committed to traditional values and the family. The Association of American Educators hopes to mediate the influence of the NEA and create a more positive image of teachers in general. This alternative organization should be investigated by teachers who are turned off by the radical politics of the NEA. (Focus On The Family, May 1994, p. 6, the Association of American Educators, contact Gary Beckner, Executive Director, 26285 Amapola Lane, Mission Viejo, CA 92691, phone 714-582-3206.)

Finally, parents need to be aware of national political trends that attempt to remove what little local control over schools is left, or to remove viable private or home schooling options. The NEA is very outspoken in its opposition to parents having real schooling choices that might reduce the union's influence and income. The recent attempt by congress to mandate teacher certification for all teachers, public, private and home schoolers, in HR 6, the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, was a thinly veiled attack by friends of the NEA to increase the union's power. A large public outcry, mainly by home-schoolers, resulted in a hasty retreat by Congress.

In general, politicians who favor free market answers to social and political problems will be helpful in blunting the control over education that the NEA desires. As Christians, we may debate the desirability of vouchers or other educational reform ideas, but few would feel comfortable allowing the NEA to control who teaches, what will be taught, and how much it will cost. The NEA's position on moral conduct, inside and outside of the classroom has placed it at odds with many parents. As a result we must elect officials that will represent our view and protect our children.

Fortunately, studies have shown that parents have the greatest influence on their children's educational success. We should also remember that the Scriptures call us to constantly be in prayer, both for our leaders and our children, because the prayers of the righteous can accomplish much.


1. Forbes, 7 June 1993, p. 74.

2. Ibid., p. 81.

3. Ibid., p. 74.

4. NEA Today, April 1994, p. 18.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. NEA Today, May 1994, p. 34.

8. Ibid.

9. Reader's Digest, "Guess Who Spells Disaster for Education," May 1994, p. 92.

10. Wall Street Journal, 13 July 1993, A14.

11. Ibid.

12. Forbes, p. 79.

13. Reader's Digest, "Guess Who," p. 93.

14. Forbes, p. 74.

15. Network News & Views, May 1994, p. 55.

© 1994 Probe Ministries International