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August 20, 2013

NEA makes practical shift

NORMAN — The National Education Association is keenly aware that its teachers are not a political monolith. The nation’s largest labor union is now making a pragmatic shift from simply tolerating its internal dissenters to engaging them.

The NEA’s most visible strategy is a yearlong fellowship that starts this fall. Teachers will travel to Washington for policy meetings and participate in monthly Web-based training in policymaking and advocacy.

The 3.2 million-member union and a national teacher leadership organization, Teach Plus, selected 53 teachers from around the country.

Criticism of the union as inflexible on pressing issues including pay and performance has weakened its bargaining position. Reaching out to some of its most vocal critics is part inclusion and part survival.

“The NEA has acknowledged that it must listen to members who want to participate in the union but were also concerned that they are not acting in the interest of students or elevating the profession of teaching,” said Christopher Eide, executive director of Teachers United.

“This is a step toward keeping the union alive and relevant,” Eide astutely noted.

The fellowship’s largest cohorts are from Washington, Colorado and Massachusetts, key education-reform battleground states. Bill Raabe, senior director of the NEA’s Center for Great Public Schools, said that is a coincidence. But he notes that bringing in teachers from reform states could benefit an organization looking to hear from different voices.

The NEA’s strategy has a precedent in Seattle. The election a year ago of Jonathan Knapp as president of the Seattle teachers union signaled a broadening strategy of relationship-building and compromise.

Just as Seattle became a model for strong school district-union relations, the NEA’s inclusiveness should spread to its local affiliates.

— The Seattle Times

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