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Full Text Transcript of NEA President Dennis Van Roekel’s 2011 Keynote Speech

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you so much. I so appreciate that warm welcome and thank you, Lily, for all those kind words. It is a joy to work with both Lily and Becky and all of the Executive Committee and to all of you delegates. Welcome to the 149th annual meeting of the National Education Association, and this, the 90th Representative Assembly.

This organization has a long and exciting history, and this annual Representative Assembly is such a huge part of that history. I'll never forget my first one.  I remember walking into this huge hall, the jumbo screens, the stage, the backdrop, the incredibly loud music and all of the debate. 

And now, years later, I'm here with almost 8,000 education support professionals, higher ed faculty and retirees, teachers, everyone, and each of you have wonderful memories about helping students discover talents they didn't even know they had. We've all felt that joy and passion about making a difference for students.

That's why we're here. That's why we became educators. And we also have student members here who share those values and who will become the next generation of dedicated educators and leaders. You know, there's one person here that has shared that passion and commitment longer than most. At 97, she just might be the oldest life member of NEA in the hall today. And I know for sure she's had a big influence on me. Mom, would you please stand up? 

Wave, mom!

Yep, that's my mom! NEA life member Marie Van Roekel. You know, my mom gave me a most precious gift. It is a love of learning and a desire to instill it in others. For 30 years as a second‑grade teacher, my mom gave that same gift to student after student after student. Thank you, Mom. Appreciate you and I love you. 

You know, every day, individual educators change the lives of students. We have also changed their lives through collective work in this great organization. In 1857, 154 years ago, a call went out to educators to come together to Philadelphia and form a national organization, one that would elevate the profession and advocate for public education. Just think, 1857. That was four years before the Civil War began, and that call was extended not just to white teachers but to black teachers as well. We won the first federal funding for education as early as 1867. The first woman elected president of the NEA was elected ten years before women had the right to vote in this country.

We endured the stock market crash of 1929 when 100,000 schools were closed, students went to school less than six months a year, 160,000 teachers were out of work, and those who never really embraced the notion of public education began to use the economic crisis as an excuse to cut funding for schools. Does that sound a bit familiar?

We were on the front lines of school desegregation and we can look back with great pride at the 1966 merger of NEA and the American Teachers Association, the association for black teachers. We helped pass the law that created the U.S. Department of Education.  You see, my point is, we haven't just walked through history. We have made history. 

NEA has experienced some of its finest hours during the toughest of times.  Today, we're at another cross roads, another moment in history, a moment that compels us to stand up for our values and our worth, to speak out for our students and our profession, and to take a stand for the future of this country.

Every day, you watch more and more students being crammed into classrooms, yet somehow, you keep them all engaged. Every day, you look into the frightened eyes of children whose parents have lost their jobs and you must become their rock. Every day, you see colleagues who have lost their jobs, their rights, or who are being blamed for their state's fiscal woes, and you stand united with them.

And all the while, as you work through these challenges, an incredible madness is swirling all around us. The election of 2010 shifted the balance of power nationally and in many states. Since then, we have seen attacks on public education and public employees in state after state. 

Many of those attacks are targeting our very existence by attempting to strip our collective bargaining rights and to strip away our ability to collect dues. They are trying to silence our voices and end democracy in the workplace. 

Let me tell you, these attacks have nothing to do with improving education. They have nothing to do with closing the state budget deficits. They have nothing to do with any kind of reform. And most important of all, they have absolutely nothing to do with helping students succeed. 

These attacks are about politics, pure and simple. And some politicians, like New Jersey Governor Christie, Wisconsin Governor Walker, Florida Governor Scott, Ohio Governor Kasich‑-they want to destroy anyone who stands in their way of their extreme agenda.  And their big political donors like the Koch brothers want to silence us because they know we have a strong voice for the middle class families in this country. They know we will fight any agenda that puts corporate CEOs at the front of the line and working families and students at the back of the line.

Part of this madness in our country is an economy that is way out of balance. In 1960, a CEO made 42 times the average worker's salary. Today, it's 260 times the average worker. In 1964, the top one percent of wage earners in America received nine percent of the total income. In 2007, that same one percent received 24 percent of all income. 

Think of that. One percent with almost a quarter of all the income. The top tax rate for the most wealthy has dropped from 70 percent to 35 percent. And taxes on capital gains, one of their largest sources of income, is only at 15 percent. So those that have, get more, while the middle class struggles to hold on to what they have.

That's the landscape of our country today in 2011, but as we gather here in Chicago at our Representative Assembly, I have a message for all those union‑busting greedy CEOs and their political pals. I want them to hear this loudly and clearly. Number one, we are not going away! Our voice will not be silenced!

We will continue to stand strong for students, for public schools and our members.  And number two, whether our opponents realize it or not, their attacks have energized and mobilized the 3.2 million members of NEA like never before. And I love every minute of it. 

Right after the 2010 election, members asked for a strategy to deal with this new world that we faced. NEA responded forcefully. We sat down with all of our state affiliates and mapped out a powerful game plan for meeting these new challenges head on. We reached out to our friends in the labor movement across the country, and we began working with them more closely than ever before. Then the war on students, public employees, unions, and the middle class began.  Alabama lawmakers fired the first shot, a ban on payroll deduction. Then came Wisconsin, Indiana, Florida, New Jersey, Idaho, Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, and the list goes on. But we were ready and we fought back.

In Alabama, we overturned the dues deduction law in court. Members lined up eagerly to proudly switch over to a new way of collecting dues so the AEA could continue to fight for students. 

Thank you, Alabama, for leading the way and standing strong!

And Wisconsin, oh, my, Wisconsin, you are the home of the first collective bargaining law for public employees. When Governor Walker and his cronies began their assault, you gathered 100,000 people at the state capitol.

And now, WEAC is planning a summer party and recall senators that voted to bust unions. Thank you, Wisconsin, for standing strong. In Idaho, our members are also working to support a public referendum to repeal the laptops for teachers law and two other ones.  They've collected 50 percent more signatures than they need, the most ever in the history of Idaho. Thank you, Idaho, for standing strong. 

In Michigan, the face of relentless attacks on unions, MEA is gearing up for the recall elections this summer. Thank you, Michigan, for standing strong. 

In Ohio, our members and friends are challenging the antiunion Senate bill 5-B--now, listen to this carefully--and they have collected 1,298,301 signatures to put it on the ballot. 


Unbelievable. The law required that they collect three percent of the number of people who voted, their signatures, in at least two‑thirds of the counties. But that wasn't good enough for OEA. They collected six percent in all counties. Thank you, Ohio, for standing strong. 

From Florida to Pennsylvania, Arizona to New Jersey, Tennessee to New Hampshire, wherever our members have been attacked, they have stood strong under fire.  Thank you, all of NEA, for standing strong. 

And at this convention, we can stand with them by supporting an increase in the legislative crisis fund. When our affiliates reach out for help, NEA will be there.  We can win this war if we stand together and stand strong.

Now, I can't tell you how proud I am of the defense we've mounted.  And I'm energized by all the things that our members and affiliates have been doing. But it's not enough. Standing strong does not mean standing still. If we want to move forward, and we need to do just that, we can't just defend against attacks. We must lead.

There is an old adage: lead, follow, or get out of the way. NEA, the largest labor union in America, we have a responsibility to lead, and we will do that.

Let's start by taking control of our own profession. Consider the fact that 47 percent of all new teachers hired in America leave during the first five years. And then, to listen to the critics, they say their biggest problem is figuring out how to fire even more. That is ridiculous. The problem is that our recruitment, training, and hiring system is totally broken. It makes no sense.  It makes no sense to have a system that allows anyone to try their hand at teaching and then say, gosh, I guess we have to fire those that shouldn't have been hired in the first place.  That's crazy. Why not, instead, why not instead create a system so people who enter the classroom in the first place are qualified, properly trained and licensed? 

That system must change. And we can't depend on someone else to do it. And for too long, we have watched and allowed evaluation systems to exist that don't work.  We've seen professional development come and go, and it's an absolute joke. We have watched policymakers define solutions that we know won't work and that we know are wrong for students. The time for watching is over. It's time to take responsibility for our profession. 

We have an incredible opportunity to take a giant step toward that goal. We can adopt the policy statement on teacher evaluation accountability. As teachers, we know what evaluation and accountability should look like if it was really designed to improve professional practice in student learning.  This policy statement puts NEA on the record for the first time, calling for a comprehensive overhaul of both teacher evaluation and accountability systems, systems that are designed to advance learning and professional practice. It also calls for our association to take responsibility for ensuring the development, implementation, and enforcement of these high‑quality systems.  The voice of teachers and educators must not be silenced and marginalized by people who don't have a clue what teaching is. Folks who couldn't survive a day in your classroom.  They have no idea what general math right after lunch looks like. 

At the same time, we fight to improve the quality of public education. We must keep fighting for equal opportunity and equity. This is a moral imperative. 

Fifty seven years after Brown versus the Board of Education, our public schools are still unequal. Achievement gaps are the result of opportunity gaps.

A few months ago, we heard a lot about the international assessment, the Pisa test and we heard a lot that U.S. students didn't score as high as other countries, like Finland and Canada.

What I bet you didn't hear is that if you only look at our students from schools where there is less than 10 percent poverty, our students are number one in the world.

So for some children, the system is working out well, but not for the 20 percent of the children in this country who live in poverty. And for all those so‑called reformers out there, stop trying to convince us that poverty doesn't matter. 

Any teacher or paraprofessional who has watched a student's head drop in fatigue because they are tired and hungry, they know that poverty matters.  Any educator who notices a child can't read the board but doesn't have money for glasses knows that poverty matters.  Any educator who determines a child didn't have access to early childhood education, they know too well that poverty matters.

You know, I know of no family of means in America who would deny their own children preschool, child care, good nutrition, and all those other opportunities from soccer to music to dance to art.  So if our nation wants to remain strong and prosperous, why would we perpetuate a system that denies those opportunities for any child.  Why can't every public school be as good as the best ones? 

That's what our priority school campaign is all about.  Collaboration with our state and local affiliates, we are empowering our members to build communities of support around students who need it most.  And we are defining the solutions, not people who have never worked a day or set foot inside of a school building since they were students themselves. 

Our members are working with administrators, school board members, parents and community leaders to fulfill the promise of public education and to prepare every student to succeed. 

Our priority schools underscore the great divides that exist in our country today.  We have a fundamental opportunity gap in our society, not just for students, but for families as well. 

These gaps get wider if Americans don't understand about the difference between these very different visions that are being offered by our nation’s lawmakers at the federal and state levels.  I can't remember a time when our nation faced a starker choice. 

And I hope we make the right choice, a choice that ensures that this country is a place where all children have equal opportunities, their own shot at the American dream. 

I want you to know, the American dream was real for me.  I grew up in a small town, 1700 people.  And although we didn't have a lot of resources, it was through a nation that cared about every person that I got my shot. 

You see, I decided in seventh grade I would be a high school math teacher.  And for 23 years, I got to live that dream.  And I'm not anywhere near the only one.  There have been millions like me who benefited from the G.I. Bill, the National Defense Education Act, opportunity grants, Pell grants. 

We love public education because we know it is the key that opens so many doors of opportunity. 

And every one of us has seen that miracle.  That light in a child's eyes.  That is how we know that every person's dream has meaning and value and everybody deserves a shot at their dream. 

So we devote our careers to opening doors, but right now, I can almost hear the doors slamming shut all across America, slamming in the face of the student who gets crammed into a larger class and gets lost in the crowd, slamming in the face of a mother who lost health insurance for herself and her children. Slamming in the face of a retiree who lost most of her retirement account in the stock market. 

We believe that people like these are good, hardworking Americans.  And sometimes they need a little help when times get tough.  There are powerful forces in our country who don't see it that way.  They want to eliminate public services and privatize everything from Social Security to Medicare. They want to dismantle Medicaid, never paying attention that Medicaid provides health care to one‑third of the children in this country.&n

They want to privatize public education so politically connected insiders can make a profit at the expense of students and educators. 

And they want to silence the voice of the middle class by dismantling our hard‑won bargaining rights and the right to bargain collectively for fair wages and decent working and learning conditions. 

None of this is speculation.  These are policies that have actually been proposed in Congress this year. 

The people behind these proposals talk a lot about the Constitution, but they don't abide by its spirit.  The Constitution says, "We the people," not "We the corporations."  And our vision of America is about people.  It's about policies that help American people achieve their own American dream.

In 2012, we will have the power to choose between these two visions.  The stakes couldn't be higher, the paths more distinct. 

So I was taken aback recently when somebody said it really didn't matter who was elected president.  If you think it doesn't matter, I ask you to go around this room and talk to your friends from Wisconsin or Florida or Michigan or Idaho or New Jersey or Tennessee or Alabama or Arizona, ask them, do elections matter?  Darn right they matter!  Darn right they matter!  That's why NEA must take a stand at this RA and support the reelection of President Barack Obama. 

We know that President Obama's opponents are going to try and demonize him for the next 16 months.  They hope we'll forget about the new law that will provide health care to 32 million people, including millions of children, ones who were denied because of preexisting conditions.  They hope we'll forget about the more than $63 billion in education to states that saved hundreds of thousands of jobs, jobs that kept class size small and helped students learn and kept summer school and after‑school programs alive.  And they hope we'll forget that some members of the U.S. House of Representatives have already introduced a union‑busting agenda at the federal level.  But they need to know, we will not forget.  President Obama is a candidate for president who shares our vision for this country.  He has never wavered from talking about the importance of education from pre‑K to college, fighting for Pell grants, fighting for the Dream Act, fighting for struggling students. 

That doesn't mean we agree with all of his education policies, and I don't mind fighting like hell all the things I disagree with.  But I believe that is a good fight to have, a fight over how to achieve a shared vision rather than fighting for the very survival of public schools and the dignity of the middle class. 

Now, some have said that we need to send a message.  I totally agree.  Let's send a message to Governor Walker, Governor Kasich, Governor Scott, Governor Christie, Representative Paul Ryan and the rest of the extremists. Our message is simple: we care about every student.  We care about public education, and we care about this country and we are closing ranks. 

Our country is not for sale to the highest political donor or the wealthiest corporations. 

It belongs to the people who built Main Street, not the wheeler dealers on Wall Street. 

It belongs to our children who expect us to safeguard its promise. 

It belongs to our seniors who deserve to live in dignity. 

It belongs to the immigrants who have made this country gloriously diverse and culturally rich and, yes, economically prosperous. 

You know, there come times in life when you just can't sit on the sidelines and wait.  And this is one of those times.  We cannot stand on the sidelines.

And if we want to have a real impact, we can't wait a year to take a stand.  That means now is the time to make a decision.  Now is the time for you to choose which vision of America you want for your children and grandchildren. 

For me, it's an easy choice.  And I know we can make a difference, just as we have for 154 years as the National Education Association. 

I know how hard this year has been, and I don't expect everything to change overnight.  But in a few years, I think we'll look back and see that 2011 was a year when the tide began to turn.  It was the year when our members became active like never before. 

A year ago, we had about 150,000 activist members registered through our Web sites.  That has changed. We now have almost 700,000 activists.

And by this time next year, it's going to be way over a million. 

It was a year when more and more parents realized that overemphasis on standardized tests is harming students.  It was a year when we took some hard shots. But when it was over, we were still standing. 

And today, we're not just standing.  We are standing strong.  We're standing strong for our students.  We're standing strong for public schools and we're standing strong for the American dream.  Thank you, NEA, for standing strong!