Cover Story

SEEN BUT NOT HEARD

Reform-minded rebels of a new kind inside the National Education Association make themselves visible at this month's annual convention. That's about it. The harsh treatment they endured at the hands of a majority shows how difficult a task they face

Issue: "Public-school reform," July 26, 2003

California delegate David O'Neal, a grandfatherly African-American dressed in a crisp khaki sport coat, stepped to the microphone. He moved that fellow delegates affirm keeping "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance. A sea of surly eyes fixed upon him, Mr. O'Neal continued with a temperate, even voice.

Like the other 9,000 delegates to this month's National Education Association (NEA) "representative assembly" in New Orleans, Mr. O'Neal is one part thick-skinned activist. NEA delegates are peer-elected and require a passionate commitment to work for their cause. But unlike most NEA delegates, Mr. O'Neal's version of the cause includes a view of public education that reverences God.

"As a patriotic person and a person of faith," he told the NEA assembly on July 5, "I believe this body should take pride to acknowledge that we are one nation under God." And, after all, added Mr. O'Neal, the U.S. Senate voted unanimously in March to keep the language.

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But this is not the United States Senate. This is the annual convocation of the biggest public-school teachers union, whose representatives constantly must be shhh'd by their president, former Illinois school teacher Reg Weaver, like a principal quieting rowdy students. This is the world's "largest democratic deliberative body," out-girthing even the Southern Baptist Convention's yearly meeting.

After his speech in favor of affirming the pledge, all eyes shifted to NEA president Weaver, perched overlooking the delegate ocean on the three-tiered rostrum of red, white, and blue bunting and massive photos of smiling children. Mr. Weaver selected delegates for the ensuing debate; first up, a Marylander, who complained that Mr. O'Neal's proposal hampered "diversity of religious belief," which "should be a private matter."

"Thank you, buddy," Mr. Weaver said, before calling the number of another podium microphone and pressing a button. Three TV cameramen stationed on the convention floor brought into focus the new speaker, who insisted that taking a stand on keeping God in the Pledge of Allegiance would "distract from our secular purpose, education."

Mr. Weaver pressed another button. The assembly's jumbotrons showed a delegate intoning, "Might does not make right. The majority cannot bludgeon the minority!" even as the NEA's majority bludgeoned Mr. O'Neal.

Just one day earlier, during the NEA's Fourth of July celebration, executive director John Wilson claimed that the Declaration of Independence was NEA's "secular Scripture" with these core values: "love of freedom, our commitment to liberty, and our tolerance of dissent." But on July 5, delegates lined up to assail Mr. O'Neal's motion on the pledge. Mr. Weaver pressed one more button-"Fellow delegates!" a male teacher huffed in opposition to affirming God in the pledge, "what is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right!"

By now, Mr. O'Neal saw the writing on the jumbotron. His "under God" motion was buried six feet under in rhetoric.

"Mr. President," a sad voice said. "Mr. President."

It was David O'Neal's. "I withdraw my resolution."

Soon several delegates circled the defeated Mr. O'Neal amid the convention aisles. "You are trying to force God on me and I don't appreciate it!" one man in a Hawaiian shirt and baggy shorts yelled, pointing his finger in Mr. O'Neal's face. An older man with gray hair pulled back in a ponytail nodded in agreement.

"I am simply encouraging the assembly to take a stand for leaving God in the Pledge of Allegiance," Mr. O'Neal, a professing Christian, told the angry men, "and I will continue doing so."

Judy Bruns, a seven-year delegate from Ohio and committed pro-lifer, has seen her share of similar exchanges on the floor of the NEA national assembly. She and fellow Ohio delegate David Kaiser watched the NEA promote abortion as "reproductive choice" in public schools until, finally, two years ago, they helped found the Conservative Educators Caucus (CEC). The group hopes to surface what they believe to be a dormant bloc of conservative teachers within the NEA rank-and-file who currently may be too intimidated by NEA's establishment to speak.

This year, CEC came out swinging for the first time.

Mr. Kaiser attended an advance January meeting of the NEA's resolutions committee, where he stated that many union members "feel disenfranchised by the leadership and policies," and added, "They have seen and heard themselves referred to as 'right-wing radicals,' 'the religious right,' 'religious fanatics,' and worse. They have been laughed at, mocked, and shouted down by delegates at the [national representative assembly] who claim to value 'diversity.'"

He said, "Many of them are dedicated, award-winning, and very effective classroom teachers who are trying to balance their professional lives with their belief systems." The 54-year-old Roman Catholic thinks many of the NEA's conservative members just don't have the time required to be involved in the union's politics. "That's the way the majority of people I know feel. They don't want to be involved with politics. They want to teach kids. Most of them are family people and they just don't have time for this."

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