NEA, Civil Rights, and Declarations of Independence


June 30, 2015

By Charles Barone

As the National Education Association holds its annual conference this week in Orlando, Florida, it will be interesting to see if they acknowledge their increasing and, arguably, unprecedented isolation from other education stakeholders, including some of their own members. For definitive coverage, check in regularly with Stephen Sawchuk of Education Week’s “Teacher Beat.”

nea-nclb cartoon


At last year’s 2014 convention, the NEA held two big votes: one elected its new President Lily Eskelsen García and a second called on U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to resign. As Caitlin Emma of Politico reported, Eskelen-Garcia said at her inauguration that the first item on her agenda was to “win back the public.” Yet when looking at NEA’s two big battles over the past year – pushing parents at the state and local level to “opt-out” of new statewide student assessments and trying to rollback testing and accountability at the federal level with the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) – it’s pretty clear they’ve alienated more people than they’ve won over.

On both these issues, the NEA has found itself particularly at odds with civil rights groups – groups that have historically been fairly aligned with both major teachers unions. Here are just two examples:

Opt-out. Twelve civil rights groups, including the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), the National Disability Rights Network (NDRN), and the National Urban League (NUL) issued a statement in May that said, in part:

The anti-testing effort has called assessments anti-Black and compared them to the discriminatory tests used to suppress African-American voters during Jim Crow segregation. They’ve raised the specter of White supremacists who employed biased tests to ‘prove’ that people of color were inferior to Whites.


There are some legitimate concerns about testing in schools that must be addressed. But instead of stimulating worthy discussions about over-testing, cultural bias in tests, and the misuse of test data, these activists would rather claim a false mantle of civil rights activism.

ESEA. Thirty-six civil rights and advocacy groups issued this letter to U.S. Senators regarding accountability issues:

We applaud maintaining the requirement for college or career aligned state standards, statewide annual assessment, disaggregated student achievement…and goals for achievement and high school graduation. These tools provide invaluable information to parents, communities, educators, advocates, and policymakers to help ensure all students receive an equitable and excellent education. The power of this reporting, however, is greatly curtailed by the absence of meaningful accountability. States must be required to identify schools where all students or groups of students are not meeting goals and to intervene in ways that raise achievement for students not meeting state standards. 

[Emphasis in bold appears in the original document.]

The civil rights groups are not alone. In a recent Huffington Post piece, Alice Cain Johnson of TeachPlus noted that the unions’ views on testing and accountability are at odds with those of many rank-and-file teachers.

One of the things many of us find particularly frustrating is that the NEA opposes education policies even in instances where stakeholders have gone to great lengths to incorporate policies that the NEA itself has pushed hard for or at the very least signed onto. The new state assessments that NEA state chapters are pushing parents to boycott, for example, embody changes that address many of the valid criticisms the NEA and others have made against the “fill-in-the-bubble” tests they are designed to replace.

This is not a new phenomenon and today is a perfect day to review some of that history. As Alexander Russo points out, this is the five-year anniversary of the death of civil rights attorney Bill Taylor, who did so much at the local, state and federal level to equalize educational opportunities for poor and minority students. Among other things, he also authored a paper that we at ERN published six years ago on this very topic. Happy Independence Day!


Cartoon exclusively for Education Reform Now by Andrew Hart. Andrew Hart is a freelance illustrator and graphic designer whose comic strip “Winston” is syndicated through Universal Press Syndicate. All rights reserved to Andrew Hart.