Saturday, April 24, 2010

The 2010 VEA Convention Adjourns for Another Year

The Virginia Education Association met for its 125th annual state convention this weekend in Virginia Beach. Over 800 teachers and support professionals convened for the purpose of tending to association business such as passing the 2010-11 budget, adopting new, revised Resolutions, and dealing with 28 new business items.

I am posting my President's Report here since several individuals asked me for a copy of my speech.

It was a great convention, and I am grateful to the more than 800 delegates and all of the staff who contributed toward making it a successful one.

Here is my 2010 President's Report:

Without a doubt, this has been one of the most challenging years in our nation’s—and our state’s—history. It has also been one of the most difficult years in VEA history. While our challenges are certainly numerous, we are also being confronted with opportunities that, depending upon how we use them, will define who we are as a people, as a nation, and as an organization. If we are to take advantage of the opportunities at hand, however...if we are to grow and benefit from them...we must face some undeniable and unassailable facts.

One unassailable fact is that we went into the 2009-2010 General Assembly session in the midst of the worst recession since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. We also went into the session with significantly fewer friends in the House of Delegates than we had last year because of the backlash against what has been going on in Washington and the “throw the bums” out attitude that drove some of our good friends out of office and some not so friendly folks into office. Our members need to know that the budget debacle that started out as nothing short of a train wreck in December is only slightly less bad than it might have been because of the bi-partisan support we still have in the state Senate. The House version of the budget was far, far more draconian in its approach to K-12 funding, so when we complain about how bad things are, we need to keep things in perspective and remember that it might have been much, much worse.

In years past, following a General Assembly session, we have been able to look back and point to at least one proud accomplishment. Last year, for example, we took pride in the fact that we had accomplished the task of guaranteeing that our elementary colleagues would be provided with a scheduled planning time during their workday. That was a goal we had worked on for 36 long years! In addition to that victory, we also got a guarantee that school support professionals would have a consistent grievance procedure in school divisions across the state; and we were also proud of our role in maintaining the financial incentive that the state offers our national board certified teachers.

This year, our “wins” are better measured by what we prevented from happening. You will remember that in December, Governor Kaine proposed a budget that would have reduced school funding by $800 million. As it turned out, that was the “good news,” and what turned out to be the high water mark in the sad story of our state budget.

Governor Kaine also proposed wiping out an additional $2 billion of reduced revenue through an income tax increase.

Within minutes of Governor Kaine’s announcement regarding his budget proposal, the House Republicans announced the proposal “dead on arrival,” and within a few short days, the House of Delegates voted 97-0 to defeat the proposal to raise revenues per Governor Kaine’s budget, deciding instead to take a “cuts only” approach to the budget shortfall before them.

By the time the House of Delegates approved its version of the budget, the cuts for public schools were up from Governor Kaine’s proposed $800 million to almost $1.5 billion.

In the end, we--the VEA and our allies--were able impact the final budget, and it is “less bad” than it would have been otherwise. There may be small comfort in making something “less bad,” but the fact of the matter is that as bad as this budget is, it is, in fact, “less bad” than it would have been had it not been for the VEA and our friends in the Senate. Don’t let the House of Delegates spin it any other way--and you know that they have been trying to put their own spin on it ever since they passed the budget. Many of you have received letters from your Delegates suggesting that the VEA had our numbers wrong, and Republican delegates in particular have attempted to defend their indefensible actions regarding the damage they would have done to K-12 education had they gotten away with their original intentions.

Because of the advocacy of the VEA on a day-to-day basis and because of the diligent work and attention to detail of our Government Relations staff, the final budget that was adopted was less damaging than it would have otherwise been, but let’s not delude ourselves. The budget is bad for K-12 education. It is bad for teachers and education support professionals. It is bad for Virginia with regard to the standards that we had previously set for ourselves, and ultimately, it is bad for our students. Our billboard campaign declaring that children have been robbed was not hyperbole. It is an undeniable and unassailable fact that our students will suffer from the cutbacks and shortcuts that their schools are going to have to accommodate because legislators chose to balance the budget on their backs rather than address the long term fiscal stability and future well being of our commonwealth.

So, our primary accomplishment this year was that we averted total disaster, and instead, witnessed a lesser catastrophe in the making with the adoption of a “less bad” budget than we might have had.

What else did we prevent from happening this year? Well, for one thing, had we not been diligent and helped make the changes in the budget that were ultimately made, our secondary teachers would have lost their much needed and well deserved daily planning time. How many of you are in middle and high schools? How many of you were aware that you were--temporarily at least--in danger of losing your planning periods next year?

Now, there’s a message you need to take back home and tell your colleagues. When you have your planning time next year, each and every secondary teacher—whether they are members of the VEA or not—should say, “Thank you, VEA”.

And last, but certainly, not least, the VEA was instrumental in saving the Virginia Retirement System for our current employees. We saw proposals that would have drastically changed the rules for everyone, but we pushed back. As a result, our current employees are somewhat protected--at least for now--and we have maintained the long fought for and hard won defined benefit pension plan that is one of the few remaining financial incentives for our education professionals to stay in the profession.

One of the most surprising aspects of the session was the positive working relationship we developed with Governor McDonnell and his staff. When the session ended, we went to him and asked that he change the language in the budget that would have allowed your localities to reduce your take-home pay by up to 5% by requiring that you pay the employee contribution to VRS. We told him the history – we told him that you received this 5% in lieu of a salary increase years ago. We pointed out the unequal treatment this provision afforded local government employees in comparison with state employees.

He listened, and he acted by amending the budget language so that no current VRS member will have to make the employee contribution. We thank Governor McDonnell and we thank the General Assembly for responding to his leadership on this issue. Although I am most thankful for this action, I fear this year’s assault on the VRS was just the General Assembly’s first all-out assault on what will likely be a long siege on our pension plan. Rest assured that we will continue to face attempts to cut our retirement program because the state has not funded it appropriately. The fact of the matter is that this year’s budget is funded in part by the reduction of scheduled payments to our retirement system. Those measures ultimately weaken the system for the future.

In addition to getting salaries back on track and re-creating the jobs that are being lost, restoring the financial integrity of our retirement system must be one of our top priorities as we come out of this recession and the economy strengthens. If a strong VEA isn’t in place insisting that funding be restored, who will? I will tell you. NO ONE. We are IT.

You need to tell your non-member colleagues that. You need to tell VPE and AFT colleagues that, because it is the truth. It is another undeniable and unassailable fact.

Now, while I have been outlining the various challenges that are before us, I don’t want you to think that we don’t know how to face down tough times or that we aren’t up to tackling overwhelming challenges, because nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, our entire organizational history has been built on our ability to face down seemingly insurmountable challenges.

In 1912, for example, the NEA, our national affiliate endorsed Women’s Suffrage. Now, that may sound like a no-brainer to those sitting in this convention hall, but you need to recall that women did not gain the right to vote in THIS COUNTRY until 1920, and then only after years of contentious political debate.

In 1919, the NEA members in New Jersey led the way to the nation's first state pension, so that by 1945, every state had a pension plan in effect.

In 1945, the NEA lobbied for the G.I. Bill of Rights to help returning soldiers continue their education.

In 1958, the NEA helped gain passage of the National Defense Education Act.

In 1964, the NEA lobbied to pass the Civil Rights Act.

In 1974, the NEA backed a case heard before the U.S. Supreme Court that proposed to make unlawful the firing of pregnant teachers or forced maternity leave.

In 1984, the NEA fought for and won passage of a federal retirement equity law that provides the means to end sex discrimination against women in retirement funds.

Today, we take these things for granted, but every one of us needs to remember that we have had to fight for just about every right and privilege that we enjoy today, and the fight will continue because there are those who would want you to forget how powerful you are. Indeed, they try to tell you everyday how weak and ineffective we are, don’t they? That’s because they know that we can be powerful. We just need to choose to recognize and embrace--and OWN--our power.

Another major battle that is looming immediately before us is the reauthorization of ESEA or No Child Left Behind. Let me just say to you that I have been deeply disappointed by the administration’s approach to this issue. President Obama, who I believe is sincere in his desire to improve education in this country, made a serious strategic error in judgment, in my opinion, when he chose Arne Duncan to lead the Department of Education instead of Dr. Linda Darling Hammond. Dr. Darling-Hammond gets it that what is wrong with education in this country today isn’t something we need to compete to get--it’s about equality and equity and having high quality teachers who are well trained and dedicated to their profession that makes the difference in our classrooms. Race to the Top funds are all about competing, and when you have competition, there are always winners and losers. We shouldn’t have an education system that rests on the ability of some to succeed and thrive while others flounder and fail! The ESEA Blueprint that has been provided for consideration by Congress presents us with numerous problems and issues, and we need to speak up with a loud and consistent voice.

I know that I haven’t offered much in the way of good news this morning, and I even depress myself even when I lay out all of the various challenges that we are facing, but there is nothing to be gained by putting our heads in the sand and not dealing with the undeniable and unassailable facts before us, is there?

As though working in a hostile political environment weren’t bad enough, we have also suffered in other ways this year. In spite of being referred to in the news as “the powerful VEA lobby,” the VEA has lost members in significant numbers this year due to a whole host of reasons that I don’t need to dwell on here, but along with the external challenges of having few friends in high places, we have also been suffering from an internal malaise of sorts in many of our very own local affiliates. We need to take note and take note fast of the fact that if we don’t stop the hemorrhaging and stop it NOW, we will no longer be the “powerful VEA lobby.” Power comes with numbers and with unity and with activism, and we need to build our numbers--and our unity and our activism--immediately. We need to accept that lately we haven’t done a very good job of communicating our effectiveness to our members and potential members, and we need to make it clear to our non-member colleagues that we need them to join with us NOW. They need to help us in our fight NOW. Waiting for another year may be too late.

Now, there have been some locals who haven’t suffered from the malaise to which I refer, and perhaps the most shining example of that fact is the Orange County Education Association. They are the source of the “Richmond Rally” that got so much attention back in February. That rally, which attracted hundreds of individuals from all over the state, was started when one lone bus driver heard what was about to happen to her school division and she said, “This isn’t right.” She went to her leadership in the OCEA and they agreed and decided that they needed to “do something” and the next thing we knew we were having a rally in Richmond. It was effective because it was a homegrown effort to get people motivated to do something. They took advantage of the circumstances that they faced and they made lemonade out of lemons. And make no mistake about the effectiveness of that rally. The Governor heard our message and offered to help move the House toward the Senate version of the budget, which ultimately resulted in the compromise that favored K-12 funding more than the House version did.

For those of you who were at the Richmond Rally that the Orange County Education Association got started and held on February 27, you might remember that my good friend and the Legislative Liaison for the Virginia PTA, Kathy Burcher, used the story of Horton Hears a Who to make her point about the importance of voices being heard. Most of you know this story, but just in case you don’t, Horton is an elephant in a Dr. Seuss story, and one day thinks he hears a voice coming from a tiny dust speck on a very small clover. No one else can hear the voice, and at first Horton is not sure he has actually heard it, but sure enough, as he listens a little harder, he hears a voice that tells him that the inhabitants of this small dust speck are in trouble and they need Horton’s help. Horton wants to respond to their plea, but he needs his jungle friends to hear the voice as well, so he asks that the folks--who, it turns out are the inhabitants of Who-ville--to shout out, and it takes the participation of every single Who in Who-ville before they are actually heard by anyone but Horton. In his plea to the very last inhabitant--a “shirker” who wasn’t participating in the effort--the Mayor proclaims:

“This is your town’s darkest hour!”
The time for all Whos who have blood that is red
To come to the aid of their country!” he said.
“We’ve GOT to make noises in greater amounts!
So, open your mouth, lad! For every voice counts!”
Thus he spoke as they climbed. When they got to the top,
The lad cleared his throat and he shouted out, “YOPP!”
And that Yopp...
That one small extra Yopp put it over.”

Like the Whos of Who-ville, the members of the VEA need every member to become engaged in the work of our association so that others will hear our voices. We can no longer ride on our past victories. We can no longer rest on the successes of the 1970’s, 1980’s, or 1990’s. We need to shout out about our victories of today and we need to engage more members--and potential members--in our battle for the hearts and minds of Virginians who don’t understand what is going on with public education today.

And what is, you might ask, “going on” with public education today? Well, my friends, I do not believe that I overstate the case when I say that public education is under siege. It is being attacked at every corner, and there are those who would not only under fund public education, which is what they have been doing for decades, but they would dismantle public education in favor of alternative avenues that would favor a few but exclude way too many. While we have been successful so far in fending off voucher schemes and tax credit proposals, we will have to continue to battle those issues because there are those who would like to offer special—and limited—opportunities to the talented or lucky few as opposed to equalizing the playing field for ALL students. I believe that our first obligation as a society is to provide for the education of our young people...ALL of our young people. And our Virginia constitution says so. I suggest that the folks who are determined to dismantle public schools in Virginia by under funding them are forfeiting their moral obligation to provide for a high quality education for every child in the Commonwealth. And to them, I say, “Shame on you. You don’t deserve to hold the office you have been elected to.” But if I feel that way and don’t act on that sentiment, I am just whistling in the wind.

That’s why we need to act together. It is why we need to raise money for the VEA Fund. We need to find and fund “friends” who will come to Richmond prepared to do the right thing by the students and educators of Virginia. They are out there. We just need to work against the odds and get them elected. And we CAN do it. We just need to muster the political will to make it happen.

Our convention theme this year is “Keep the Promise,” and while we have talked about how our legislators’ need to keep their promise to the educators of Virginia and the students we teach, we at the VEA need to keep a promise of our own. We must promise each other and ourselves that we will not give up the fight, no matter how hard it is. We owe it to ourselves as professionals who need to be able to respect ourselves even if no one else is rushing to demonstrate their respect for us; but even beyond doing it for ourselves, we need to do it for our students. They depend on us. We are, after all, their advocates and their champions. They need us to lead the charge and fight for an equal opportunity for each and every one of them.

In a few minutes, you will see a video presentation that re-enacts a time when someone stood up and took action instead of just complaining about how unjust the world is. That someone was a young African American high school student who lived in Prince Edward County, Virginia. The young woman’s name was Barbara Johns, and the place where she took her stand was the auditorium of Robert Russa Moton High School in Farmville, Virginia. At the young age of 16, Barbara Johns organized and galvanized a strike among her fellow classmates. The day of that strike was April 23, 1951. Forty-nine years ago on this very day, Barbara Johns and a small group of friends tricked their principal into leaving the building while they called an emergency student assembly. Once assembled, Barbara asked the teachers to leave so they wouldn’t lose their jobs by knowing what was being planned. Barbara then delivered a speech that would change history for herself and her classmates. She and her fellow students—450 of them—decided right there on the spot to walk out of their school because of the unequal treatment that they were receiving at the hands of their county school board. It was out of that action that Prince Edward County eventually became part of the case now known as Brown v. Board of Education.

As an adult, Barbara continued to be committed to education and became a librarian—a profession she practiced until her death in 1991.

Barbara Johns’ contribution to the civil rights movement is often overlooked because she was just a teenager when she took her stand and made a difference. But make a difference, she did.

Barbara Johns and her classmates are being remembered as the Robert Russa Moton Museum hosts a gala fundraiser that is being held tonight in Farmville. Were it not for the fact that I need to be here with you, I would be there celebrating Barbara’s legacy along with the fact that the NEA has pledged $250,000 toward the development of the permanent exhibit of Gallery VI, the Bound for Freedom Gallery, where the contributions of NEA members from the 1960’s will be remembered.

For the next few minutes, I would like to share with you a video presentation that has been created for tonight’s gala. It is entitled “Strike: April 23, 1951.”

You are receiving envelopes that will allow you to contribute personally to the Moton Museum if you would like. A minimum contribution of $19.63 is being requested, but I hope you will feel moved to give generously. We cannot let this history get lost. Indeed, in the climate and culture that we are all currently experiencing, it is more important than ever that we remember our collective history and strive to continue to bring about equality and equity for every child in this Commonwealth...every single one.

In closing, I would like to share with you the mission statement from Apple Computers. You know about Apple Computers. They continue to confound and amaze the world with their new innovations and they continually change the world with their inventions whether they be iPods, iPhones, or their latest iPad.

Here’s their mission statement. It’s entitled “Think Different.”

Here’s to the crazy ones.
The misfits.
The rebels.
The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently.
They’re not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.
You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them,
disbelieve them, glorify them or vilify them.
About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They invent. They imagine. They heal.
They explore. They create. They inspire.
They push the human race forward.
Maybe they have to be crazy.
How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art?
Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written?
Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?
We make tools for these kinds of people.
While some see them as the crazy ones,
we see genius.
Because the people who are crazy enough to think
they can change the world, are the ones who do.

My fellow VEA members, Delegates, Friends, Colleagues: I want to change the world, don’t you? Does that make me crazy? Maybe. Is it worth the effort if it changes for the better the life of one child who is currently in our care? You bet it is. So, I ask you, let’s get crazy together. Let’s change the world by creating a culture where it is okay to say, “Hey, we are here! We are the educators who know what is best for our students and for education reform and for our nation. We are here, and we demand to finally be heard!

If we are to be heard, however, we must each do our part individually and collectively, and we must start growing this organization right now into a powerful, unstoppable, unified organization that elects friends who will not turn their backs on K-12 education when times are tough. We cannot afford to wait. Let’s remember Barbara Johns and those brave students who took action right then and there. Let’s go out and change the world. And let us begin today!

Thank you.