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In Person: Reg Weaver


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BOOKS: Why the “New Americans” are Crossing Over.
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August 30, 2002
The Education President

As the new head of the nation’s largest teachers union, Reg Weaver has wasted little time critiquing President Bush’s education plan. Elected in July as president of the National Education Association, Weaver says the federal legislation sweeping through the nation’s schools was created without input from the very people charged with carrying out the reform effort—teachers. And he has few kind words for the recent Supreme Court decision that upheld the use of vouchers in Cleveland’s public school system. A voucher program, says the 62-year-old Weaver, is “a ticket to nowhere.”

Since 1996, Weaver has been vice president of the NEA, which represents about 2.7 million teachers and other school workers nationwide. A science teacher from suburban Chicago, Weaver is something of a union pioneer. In 1981, he became the first African-American elected president of the 115,000-member Illinois Education Association, an NEA affiliate.

In These Times spoke with Weaver in August.

What are the NEA’s primary goals?

What we do is try to restore the public’s confidence in public education, and we try to do that by making sure all children have access to a quality public education that is free from intimidation and harassment and has an atmosphere that is conducive to good teaching and learning. ... We want all schools to be as good as our best schools. Those are the kinds of things we want, and I think those are the kinds of things that parents want, and that most policy-makers want for their schools and the children they serve.

What are your concerns regarding President Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” legislation?

There were about four people who wrote the law. The NEA had very little input in terms of the original law.

In addition, funding is not where it needs to be. States have mandates without funding. The act calls for having a qualified, certified teacher in every classroom by 2006. Nobody wants that any more than we do. It’s an admirable goal. But how are we going to do it? Parents need to know there is no funding for that. These policies sound good, but are the resources there? At this time, no.

This law is very far-reaching, and, in some ways, it can be very intrusive. I think there are some early advisories from the Department of Education that call for the law to supersede collective bargaining agreements. If that is true, and the administration interprets it that way, then sparks will fly. There are state teachers associations that have fought for years to gain collective bargaining; they’re not about to sit back and allow those rights to be eroded without a fight.

Last year, NEA-affiliated teachers unions in four states pushed for legislative changes that would expand collective bargaining laws to include traditionally un-negotiable topics, such as curriculum choice and textbook selection. The measures won in Maryland and Tennessee, but lost in Connecticut and California. What do you take from that?

I think it’s a good thing those states put forward the opportunity to expand collective bargaining. I think that it’s important we have an opportunity to participate in the issues that affect our workplace. When people feel they have a say in the selection of something, then they have more ownership. I believe if those kinds of things were afforded educators more, they would have more ownership, rather than having something just mandated to them by somebody who thinks they know what needs to be done.

What about critics who argue the unions are roadblocks to reform?

That’s an overused argument, and it doesn’t hold water. The teachers unions are not responsible for blocking reform; the teachers unions are responsible for standing up for what they believe would be a detriment to the environment in which they work. There’s nothing wrong with standing up for what you believe in as an educator, as a professional, as a practitioner, if, in fact, you see something that’s going to potentially damage the system. Why would you not speak out against it?

Where does the union stand on vouchers?

We have spoken out and will continue to speak out against vouchers. We feel that they are a detriment for all kids. They haven’t worked anywhere they’ve been tried. ... What we talk about is making sure that all children have access to a quality education ... and vouchers do not allow that for all children.

If, just because we speak out against vouchers, we’re automatically seen as blocking reform—well, if that is the case, then yeah, we are blocking it. Because vouchers are not in the best interest of all children. ... I would say that those who want to point their finger at the teachers unions should turn around and look at themselves. What are they doing to make it possible for all children—not just some—to have access to a quality public education?

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