Last Friday, the president of the National Education Association (NEA), Dennis Van Roekel, spoke to Idaho Education Association (IEA) delegates gathered in Boise for the group’s annual conference and he didn’t have nice things to say about an education reform package approved by the Idaho Legislature earlier this year.
On Wednesday, the vice chairmen of the House and Senate education committees fired back, saying that the NEA president was off-base in his assessment.
Van Roekel said the package, a trio of bills Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna billed as a way to educate more students at a lower cost, actually has little do with schools and more to do with partisan politics. “What’s it’s about is political payback,” he yelled, garnering applause from attendees. “It’s about silencing unions and middle-class Americans.”
The IEA – the voluntary teachers’ union – endorsed Luna’s opponent in the 2010 election.
The vice chair of the Senate Education Committee, Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, told IdahoReporter.com Wednesday that he believes the NEA president made the comments without reading the Luna plan. “If he understood the bills, he wouldn’t have said that,” said Mortimer. “Everyone has a right to comment, but they should know the legislation before commenting on it.”
Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, who serves as vice chair of the House Education Committee, said Luna’s bills were crafted to improve the public school system in the Gem State, not to exact political payback. “I think the package is legitimate education reform,” said Shirley, adding that some ideas in the plan have been in the works for several years. “They did not just pop up out of retaliation.”
Shirley, like Mortimer, said that Van Roekel has the right to voice his opinion on the matter, but his words might have been irresponsible. “For the union to make that charge is inaccurate and unfair,” said Shirley.
Another member of the House Education Committee, Rep. Donna Pence, D-Gooding, was hesitant to label the reform package as simply political payback. “I don’t know what was in Tom Luna’s head,” she said. “I can’t say that he did it deliberately.”
But Pence acknowledges that a greater Republican majority – brought on by the 2010 elections in which the GOP picked up seats – in the Capitol may have helped hasten education reform plans. “I think he’s (Luna) wanted the reforms all along,” she postulated. “I think he saw this was the time he could actually get it done.”
Van Roekel took a few minutes to address what he called “attacks” on unions across the country, and urged IEA members to unite and become more active in their local communities. ”It’s about ideals,” he said, talking about the current political climate in the United States. ”It’s about a country deciding where it wants to go.”
He promised that unions across the nation would come together in coming days and months to fight against those who would deny them privileges. Without making mention of specific legislation, Van Roekel warned that the IEA and NEA must be vigilant in striving for common goals, even in the face of great challenges. ”The power we have is in our response,” he said. ”It’s about what we choose to do.”
He pledged that the NEA, IEA, and other unions across the country would ramp up efforts to enact their own change in political circles. “We are not going away,” he warned. “No matter how you come after us, we are not going away.”
Here is the full video of Van Roekel’s address to the IEA: