Boston — Much has been made of the political power of the National Education Association this past year. The NEA was credited with helping Jimmy Carter win his primary fight. The association, after winning its long battle to separate education from health and welfare, finally got a Cabinet-level officer.
While Mr. Carter's choice for secretary of education (Judge Shirley M. Hufstedler) did not come from NEA ranks, the association boasted of direct access to the White House and to the President.
Part of NEA political strategy has been to get newspaper columinists and TV journalists to startle the public with a long list of "horror stories" about the difficulties teachers face in the schools -- vandalism, teacher assaults, disruptive student behavior, and so forth. Then it put forth some solutions, such as having classes no larger than 15, security guards with teaching certificates, and the use of average daily membership (ADM) instead of average daily attendance (ADA) to count pupils for state aid.
This difference between ADA and ADM costs state tax-payers millions of dollars each year. It also makes expulsion and suspension part of the school scene, often another cost to taxpayers in wanton behavior by school-age youth deliberately kept out of school and out of the labor market.
The school system that gets state aid for its pupils by sending a figure to the state treasury based on membership can send a high figure based on attendance during the early part of the school term, when most school-age children are actually in school.
School systems during ADA must get reimbursed by the state on the basis of the number of pupils actually enrolled on a day-by-day basis.
It is estimated that in many urban school districts as many as 30 to 40 percent of the students for whom a school district is receiving state aid are not actually in classes.
The class-size controversy, long the basis for an NEA cry for smaller classes , necessitating the hiring of two teachers in place of one, goes on and on -- much of it in the face of research data showing that class size is not nearly as important to student success as are class ethos or environment and the ability of the teacher.
But now the NEA has lost the election. It was for Mr. Carter's reelection that the NEA's 1.8 million members politicked -- using a teacher's summer off and a short working day to put thousands of volunteers to work for him.
President-elect Ronald Reagan owes nothing to the NEA, and if his campaign promise holds true, there will not only be no Cabinet-level Department of Education by the close of the next congressional session, but no Office of Education, either.
And if Mr. Reagan holds true to his promise to give more control over local affairs to state governments, it means that the NEA will have 52 political brush fires to fight (including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico) and not just one at the national level.
But it would appear that the National Education Association has lost more than an election. Its raw use of political power -- to improve working conditions for its members at the expense of good teaching -- has aroused the so-called silent majority.
The US public schools are, according to all polls, at their lowest rating in history. While the NEA has been exercising political power for collective-bargaining rights, shorter working hours, higher pay, and smaller class size, the public has become more and more dissatisfied with the quality of the education provided.
Has the association, in less than a decade, gone from a high-quality service organization helping teachers to run high-quality schools to a broken political force with a base neither in the government nor among the taxpaying public?
But the NEA is made up of teachers -- nearly 2 million of them -- and good teachers do care about the schools they teach in and run. They do care about children; they do care about high quality.
And there's no reason for the NEA's 52 state affiliates not to play a major role in strengthening state departments of education. And no reason whey these same teachers, and thousands more who will join NEA ranks in 1981, cannot help turn our public schools around.
They'll have to start by accepting an important truth: The ability of teachers to teach and the ability of teachers to keep learning are vital to classroom success for the pupils they touch.
Perhaps it is good that the NEA's political balloon has burst. Perhaps it's best the NEA be judged on the basis of pupil success, and not on government influence.