Where the No. 1 union stands

As president of the National Education Association, Bob Chase heads one of the most powerful unions in the nation. In a landmark February 1997 speech, he challenged the notion that unions would sacrifice the quality of public schools for the rights of teachers.

Mr. Chase's new unionism called on the NEA's 2.4 million members to take more responsibility for their profession, including counseling poor teachers out of the classroom. He spoke with the Monitor about revitalizing public schools. Excerpts follow:

On public education:

There are things that belong in the realm of the public - of community caring - and education is one of them. Ignorance on the part of some affects all, and public schools must have the responsibility of making sure that all students have the chance of being something other than ignorant.

On vouchers:

Existing private schools can take only about 2 additional percent of the people who are currently in public schools. They just don't have more room than that. And if you look at schools created by vouchers in Milwaukee and Cleveland, students in those schools are doing poorer than the students in either private schools or public schools. So what we're seeing is a setup where young people's educational opportunities are being diminished rather than enhanced.

On the value of competition:

I think there can be competition and choice within public schools. It doesn't take the market to bring about that competition. I know a lot of places that have choice within the public setting - a different focus as far as curriculum and methodology.

On public charter schools:

There are a number of charters that are succeeding, that's fine. But there's also a large number that aren't. In Arizona, there's almost no accountability. If you try to get good data about the status of the schools, it's almost impossible because it's not being collected in any systematic way.

On opting out of public schools:

If you're an inner-city parent or a rural parent and you're in a situation with problems with the public schools, many of these alternatives [charters, vouchers, private school] sound terrific because it's an escape and it's something to help your child; but it isn't and they're not.

If you took the money that you spent on Milwaukee vouchers and put that money into lowering class size, you could serve every kid with less money than the voucher program.

On relaxing union work rules:

[NEA affiliates in] Milwaukee and Seattle recently negotiated a contract that has altered some of the seniority questions and transfer policies. The Seattle contract dropped to 30 pages from hundreds.

On grass-roots reform:

The NEA needs to get out of the way. We can't allow the union's sacred cows to block the path of members who want to pursue their own vision of school quality, and school renewal and reform.

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