Liberal NEA Faces Rising Assault From Conservative Educator Groups
Gretchen Munson, an English teacher for 15 years in Fort Bend, Tex., was looking early this year for an alternative to the liberal National Education Assn., the nation’s second largest union, which she found to be “a political entity that doesn’t have much to do with teaching.”
“Because I’m not a leftist,” Munson said, “that leaves the right.” She found a home with a fledgling group called the National Council for Better Education, which is launching an aggressive campaign against what it calls “the socialist-oriented” NEA.
Munson and others like her are the prizes in an escalating battle between the NEA--controversial for its liberal views on abortion, busing, handgun control and sex education--and small conservative groups that are pecking away at it.
Although NEA officials say their membership of 1.7 million is holding steady, they are worried enough that they have established a task force to respond to the conservative charges. The NEA also is plying its members with a “truth paper,” containing 31 answers to what it calls “the most common and outrageous misinterpretations of NEA policy” being advanced “by the Radical Right in America.”
Could Affect Future
With each side accusing the other of trying to impose its political and social views not only on public school children but also on parents, politicians and the public at large, the outcome of the dispute could play a role in determining the future direction of American education.
Both sides agree that the battle has reached a pitch unprecedented in the NEA’s 127-year history, but there is no accurate count of how many rivals for the organization have sprung up. The number is estimated to be at least 25 nationwide, mostly in the Sun Belt, where resistance to unions runs deep and political and social attitudes tend to be conservative.
California’s NEA affiliate, the California Teachers Assn., which has 170,000 members, is feeling a challenge from the Professional Educators Group of California, a 15-year-old organization with 2,000 members that is mounting a campaign aimed at doubling its membership.
Betty Cordoba, a retired Los Angeles teacher who now works as a substitute teacher, is both the California group’s membership director and vice president of the Professional Educators of Los Angeles, which has 3,000 members. An opponent of NEA’s “ultra-liberal stream of thought,” she said the Professional Educators’ appeal stems from stances against teacher strikes and “forced unionism” and support of “back-to basics” curricula and classroom discipline.
Provocative NEA Challenger
Nationally, the two-year-old National Council for Better Education, which drew Munson away from the NEA in Texas, is proving one of the NEA’s more provocative challengers. Sally Reed, its politically savvy founder, formerly director of development for the National Conservative Political Action Committee, wrote a book last year entitled “NEA: Propaganda Front of the Radical Left.”
Her 131-page book lambastes the NEA for supporting homosexuals, Nicaragua, “racial radicalism,” the equal rights amendment and nuclear disarmament. In a fund-raising letter for the council, Rep. Philip M. Crane (R-Ill.) says that the book “exposes the NEA’s drive to impose its left-wing political agenda on America.”
Outlining the council’s own goals, the book advocates educational enterprise zones in which control of schools would be decentralized to the community level and union restrictions and state regulations would be lifted, “thereby promoting parental and community involvement.” It also calls for more private and home schooling to give parents “greater freedom to choose educational opportunities for their children.”
Reed, a Texan and former high school civics and history teacher, said in an interview that conservatives have been too shy to attack the NEA. “Someone had to come out and say this is the problem,” she said. “Someone had to come out and play hardball with the NEA,” which she called a “threat to national security.”
Realizing that ideology alone will not necessarily win converts from the NEA, Reed said the council plans to provide health insurance for its members. “They’ll get the same things as the NEA, except they won’t get the left-wing politics,” Reed said.
Reed said her council has 6,000 members and intends to distribute 1.5-million free copies of her book during the next two years. She lists among her supporters Texas oilman Bunker Hunt and singer Pat Boone.
Among the council members are some non-educators, including Joe Davenport, a hardware store owner in Del Rio, Tex., and chapter leader of the John Birch Society. “Labor unions have invaded the classrooms through the NEA,” Davenport said.
Rebellion Against Dues
Even before Reed began organizing her council, small, independent unions had been operating for years in several states. Most had rebelled against the NEA’s political activism and against the requirement that members of local NEA affiliates also pay dues--now $62 a year--to the national organization.
For example, in South Carolina, the Palmetto State Teachers Assn., founded in 1976, has 2,000 members. Elizabeth Gressette, its executive director, said she opposes the NEA because she dislikes its involvement in political issues “that are outside the realm of education. . . . I felt if I added myself to their number, that would be saying I support what they support.”
Other groups do not hesitate to delve into politics. Roger Zion, legislative director of the 12-year-old National Assn. of Professional Educators, said its legislative agenda includes opposition to “forced busing,” the nuclear freeze and collective bargaining.
Zion says that his organization is allied with similar groups throughout the nation that claim a total membership of about 80,000 members. His association, with 3,000 members, is allied with other independent groups, including the Professional Educators Group of California and similar organizations in Georgia and Indiana.
Lobbying Activities Cited
Jane Ping, an Indianapolis kindergarten teacher and president of Indiana Professional Educators, one of the allied organizations, said her 1,000-member group lobbies state legislators for incentive pay for certain teachers, which the NEA opposes.
Called ‘Not Surprising’
At the Education Department here, Gary L. Bauer, deputy undersecretary for planning, budget and evaluation, said it was “not surprising” that conservative groups are organizing against the NEA. He said there is “a great deal of discontent” among teachers who “perceive the NEA to be to the left of them on many issues.”
Such charges rankle at the NEA, where Howard Carroll, an association spokesman, said the core of the opposition comes from “the real loonies.” The Reagan Administration, he asserted, has created “an environment for the New Right to expand itself and get more influence in the government.”
Dorothy Massie, a member of task force formed by the NEA to respond to the conservatives, likened the attack to “the big lie. You repeat a falsehood often enough in enough places, and people begin to believe it.”
Massie described an elaborate process in which 8,000 delegates from around the country vote on association policies. If the NEA seems too liberal to critics on such issues as abortion, busing, gun control and collective bargaining, Massie said, it is because the membership sometimes takes “controversial positions. The majority won.”
In response to the charge by conservatives that the NEA supports abortion, it responds that it has no policy but supports “the right of all women to reproductive freedom.” On busing, the NEA says it favors school desegregation by “whatever method may be the most appropriate.”
And for many NEA members, the association’s power to secure better pay and improved working conditions outweighs any political negatives. “En masse, your power is greater,” said Theodoshie Williams, an Atlanta teacher who has belonged to the NEA for 12 years.
Education Secretary William J. Bennett, arguing that the conservative challenge is having impact, said NEA President Mary Hatwood Futrell’s recent newspaper columns have moved away from “the kinds of partisan political statements that NEA has often been accused of.” He said Futrell’s statements on humanities, “traditional values” and classroom discipline have been “very mainstream.”
At the NEA, spokesman Carroll conceded that association officials are “lowering our voices.” But he added: “We’re not moving to the right. We’ll survive this as we have other attacks in the past.”