Posted In: Educator Voices, Multimedia, Pennsylvania, Rallies and Events, Utah
By Amanda Litvinov
Republican members of the National Education Association realize they’re in a unique position to work around the party-line polarization that dominates politics today.
“In my experience, because I am Republican, even though I’m also a staunch supporter of NEA, doors are open to me that have not been opened for other people,” said Ted Payne, a middle school science teacher with 24 years of experience who currently serves as president of the Carroll County Education Association in Maryland. “I have worked very hard to build relationships with both Republican and Democrat elected officials…to actually get agreement so that we were able to get budgets passed.”
Payne and nearly 70 other Republican educators eager to achieve bipartisan progress on education policy gathered in Washington, D.C., last week for NEA’s Republican Leaders Conference. Now in its 6th year, the annual conference helps attendees develop leadership skills to support pro-public education Republicans at the local, state, and federal level.
A running theme throughout the conference was that real progress depends on NEA members willing to work tirelessly to reach lawmakers who, in turn, must be willing to listen to the millions of educators who advocate for their students and their profession through their Association.
NEA President Dennis Van Roekel said if we can’t at least work with people we don’t always see eye-to-eye with, then we’re in trouble.
“I recognize, in this environment, how difficult it is to buck the party line,” said Van Roekel. “We’ve got to find more ways to support our friends who believe as we do in the power of education.”
Several important accomplishments in the last legislative session would not have been possible without the help of Republican friends, said Van Roekel, including blocking a proposal for a federal mandatory goal on teacher evaluation; stopping school voucher schemes from becoming a prominent part of the ESEA markup; and protecting personnel files from being made public.
Keynote speaker Rep. Patrick Meehan (R-PA) lamented the fact that it’s getting harder to find the spirit of compromise on Capitol Hill, but urged that “we must not surrender to the idea that education is a one-party issue.” Meehan has instituted forums in his district to ensure that he has a chance to speak with administrators, educators, and parents, who may have different views but share deep concern for student success.
Osmond admitted he took office in early 2011 thinking he “knew it all. I came into office convinced that I knew everything I needed to know based on my past experience running a for-profit education company.” But over the ensuing months, he revamped his attitude and approach based on his experiences observing student-teacher interactions and working with the Utah Education Association (UEA).
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, a second-grade teacher and 2009 Utah Teacher of the Year who currently serves as UEA president, said Osmond quickly realized the essential role the Utah Education Association plays in making educators’ voices audible in the statehouse. That voice rang out against the first incarnation of Utah SB 64: While UEA was open to new accountability measures for administrators and educators alike, members of all political persuasions were dismayed by unfair evaluation practices suggested by the bill.
But UEA would find they had a valuable friend in Sen. Osmond. He listened “to all the education stakeholders and literally hundreds and hundreds of teachers,” said Gallagher-Fishbaugh.
Osmond said “being invited by teachers to spend time in their classrooms and seeing what teachers face and how much outside factors affect learning” revealed to him how essential educator input would be if he was to craft legislation that moves education forward for the most important stakeholders of all—Utah’s students.
The best way to forge those relationships with GOP lawmakers is to make sure Republican educators get involved, said Michael Montigelli of Black River, New York.“I reach out to my Republican friends who assume that their interests are automatically at odds with the union and remind them, ‘when you’re a member, your voice is important, that’s what being in a union is all about.’”
- Find out more about NEA’s Republican Caucus at the Elephant Educators Forum.
- Brush up on best practices in communicating with lawmakers (of any political party!) in the Legislative Action Center.