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Teacher’s Unions and the American Dream

I had the privilege of attending the annual National Educational Association Representative Assembly in Chicago, Illinois. The NEA represents 3.2 million elementary and secondary teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators and students preparing to become teachers.

This was a weeklong event attended by over 9,000 teachers representing every state in the union.


Dennis Van Roekel is the president of the NEA and he gave the keynote speech, kicking off the convention. His words give us insight into the philosophy and goals of the largest labor union in the country and the people responsible for educating our children.

Himself a 23-year veteran teacher, Van Roekel began by thanking his 97 year old mother who was a teacher for 30 years and was in the audience, “My mom gave me a most precious gift: a love of learning and a desire to instill it in others.”

He went on to give a brief history of the accomplishments of the NEA. “We won the first federal funding for education as early as 1867.” He continued, “The first woman President of NEA was elected a full 10 years before women even had the right to vote!”

He received a standing ovation for heralding, “We haven’t just walked through history. We have made history.”

His words were powerful, concise and included facts that were at times, distressing.

For example, Van Roekel cited, “In 1960 a CEO made 42 times the average worker’s salary – today it’s 260 times the average worker.” He continued, “[In 1960] one percent of wage earners got nine percent of the total income. In 2007, that same one percent received about 24 percent of all income!”

He informed the crowd of policies that have been proposed in Congress that are meant to, according to Van Roekel, silence the voice of the middle class.

[They want to] “Eliminate public services and privatize everything from Social Security to Medicare which provides health care to one-third of the children in the country. They want to privatize public education so politically-connected insiders can make a profit at the expense of students and educators.”

He addressed the issue of teacher recruitment and retainment.

“Consider the fact that 47 percent of all new teachers leave in their first five years. But some critics think that the biggest challenges in education is figuring out how to fire even more. That is ridiculous.” He affirmed, “They are dead wrong. The problem is that our recruitment, training and hiring system is totally broken.”

Vice President Biden, when addressing the convention two days later, quoted Van Roekel.

“I know of no family of means in America who would deny their own children preschool, child care, good nutrition, health care and 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?”

While much of his speech was meant to rally labor unions, his words resonate with all of us struggling to remain middle-class and provide a first rate education for our children. Isn’t this the backbone to retaining the American Dream?

Contact Margaret Lavin at


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