DALLAS – Have the Bush years caused you to become a little bit cynical about American democracy and concern for other human beings? Are you starting to think that nobody cares? If so, it’s too bad that you weren’t able to attend the National Education Association’s (NEA) 2002 Representative Assembly, July 2-5, here. It would have fixed you right up!

The delegates all agreed that they were participating in the “largest democratic deliberative body in the world.” The almost 9,000 delegates began with 329 resolutions and 109 new business items (NBIs). They debated all 438 proposals.

While the resolutions and NBIs reflected a broad spectrum of issues on delegates’ minds, the key issues the convention focused on were the present-day threats to public education and the political involvement of teachers to save and improve it.

In his keynote address, outgoing President Bob Chase blasted the recent Supreme Court decision that legalized giving public tax money to private schools. He said, “The Court can say that vouchers are constitutional – just as the Court for 60 years said that segregated schools were constitutional – but that does not make it right. And it certainly does not make it wise public policy.”

Later, he added, “We stand in principled opposition to vouchers. And to the voucher ideologues, we make this promise: We will expose your false promises. We will lay bare your lies … as we have done in California, Michigan and everywhere else that vouchers have been on the ballot.”

Chase made it clear that the NEA opposes many of the policies that are essential to the Bush administration. The NEA believes that standardized tests are being misused in American public education. Chase summarized its position, “In too many states, the tests are swallowing our schools. They are distorting the curriculum. They are destroying our autonomy and creativity as teachers. And they are hurting children.”

Chase blasted the underfunding of education while trillions of dollars in tax cuts are given to wealthy corporate moguls. Chase also opposed giving tax money to “faith-based” organizations.

The NEA elected a new president, Reg Weaver, a 35-year teaching veteran and middle-school science teacher from Harvey, Ill., near Chicago. Weaver is the fourth African-American president of the 145-year-old union.

Weaver focused on unity in order to save public education in America. The NEA, he said, must “work diligently to insure that the upcoming elections are a win for children, teachers, and public education.” Weaver warned that the recent Supreme Court decision on school vouchers showed the great importance of the coming elections.

“What are we going to do to insure that public education survives in America?” Weaver asked. “I believe it is imperative that the NEA not lose sight of the fact that our primary focus should be on solidifying the need for public education in America.”

Responding to the unrelenting attacks on teachers, their unions and public education as a whole, Weaver said, “We must eliminate misconceptions about the association, its mission, its policies and its direction. We are faced with an eroding confidence in public education.”

Weaver advocated going on the offensive with community- and public-relations building. He also indicated the possible broad support public education can garner if the 2.7 million NEA members are mobilized. “We don’t care which side of the aisle you sit on … you must be on the side of public education,” he said.

Bruce Banner, a delegate from Austin, Tx., brought a unanimous proposal from the state delegation in opposition to privatization of public education. The proposal linked privatization to the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), in which 34 nations, including the United States, would be subject to corporate and bank pressures, leading to privatization of the public sector, including education. Banner called the FTAA, “vouchers on steroids.”

Ohio delegate, Gary McClintick, a bus driver, was also concerned about privatization, especially of school transportation work. He said most of the school bus accidents come from private bus services, and that private services can’t compare to what school district buses provide.

Mal Herbert staffed the booth of NEA’s Peace and Justice Caucus. She said the caucus has 400-500 members who stand for environmental and peace issues. Her caucus circulated a “Pledge of Resistance,” which called on NEA members to oppose the war on terrorism, attacks on civil rights and liberties and legislation that furthers pro-corporate, anti-labor policies. The convention refused to consider it.

NEA holds their Representative Assembly every summer. The 2003 event is scheduled for New Orleans.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org