By Lance Fuller
Over the past several months, states with recently elected Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio and Florida have passed legislation that harms public education, eliminating collective bargaining, teacher tenure and instituting merit pay. So it might seem paradoxical for public school educators to support Republicans.
But NEA boasts roughly 1 million Republican members — a third of its membership — and they care about public education. This week NEA welcomed them at its fifth Republican Leaders Conference, which aims to engage the Association’s Republican members and prepare them to effectively advocate for pro-public education issues and candidates on the local, state and federal levels.
Illinois member and 22-year veteran social studies teacher Jerome Hoynes considers the large number of Republican NEA members one of the greatest untapped wells in American politics.
“There are a lot of pro-education Republicans,” Hoynes said, adding, “education shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”
The conference, themed “Taking it Back Home,” also featured workshops on retirement and pension issues along with collective bargaining, and visits to Capitol Hill to meet with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.) Roughly 100 NEA members from across the country attended the event.
Pat Shmidt, a Wisconsin member and 35-year veteran music teacher, has attended the conference for four years. During the March protests of Scott Walker’s budget repair bill in Wisconsin, she felt encouraged and hopeful to know that NEA Republicans stood in solidarity with Wisconsinites. Thanks to her previous conference attendance, she was equipped with the necessary skills to speak at rallies in Madison, and knew how to approach her senator for lobbying and how to get involved in the recall elections going on there now.
Louisiana member Diane Vickers, also a 22-year teaching veteran, believes that the current Republican-controlled Congress will be more willing to listen to Republicans about education issues than Democrats, so the conference has provided outstanding leadership, lobbying and networking skills for Republican constituents.
“One of the reasons that I don’t see a paradox in being a Republican and being a union member is because when I work with the children, the children are not Democrats or Republicans, they’re just kids. I don’t work for Democrats or Republicans, I work for the children,” Shmidt said. “We’re trying to show that these radical changes that these governors in these states are trying to make are going to hurt the children.”
Photo: Charles Votaw/NEA