Dennis Van Roekel set the tone for the NEA Representative Assembly this year with his keynote speech surrounding this year’s theme of “Standing Strong.” At the heart of his speech was this section detailing the attacks on education in recent years:
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.
After thanking specific states like Wisconsin, Ohio, and Alabama for their fights against union busting tactics, he noted that teachers need to take control of teacher training, to frame the evaluation debate, and to help fight poverty. And then he touched on a key point I have offered up in our local meetings:
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?
Finally, as Van Roekel neared the climax of his speech, he stated that:
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.
And with these words the tone was set for a fiery and intense series of debates.