Jesse Barnhart & Lee Deming attend NEA Republican Leaders' Conference

Two members of the MEA-MFT Republican Caucus, Jesse Barnhart of Broadus and Lee Deming of Laurel, attended the third annual National Education Association Republican Leaders’ Conference in summer 2009. The event was held at the NEA Headquarters in Washington DC.


Jesse Barnhart filed this report:
This conference brought together over 130 NEA members who are politically Republican, and they represented 44 states. Lee Deming and I were Montana’s delegates, selected by MEA-MFT President Eric Fever, a long time, articulate, and tireless advocate for students and teachers involved in Montana’s public schools.


After three days of intensive skills training and networking, the NEA-GOP delegates visited Republican members of Congress in hopes of beginning a dialogue, and identifying areas of mutual interest for possible future collaboration.


It isn’t a well known fact that of NEA’s 3.2 million members nationwide, an estimated 1 million are politically Republican.


That puts NEA at a higher percentage of identified Republicans in our professional organization than identify themselves as Republicans nationally in the latest U.S. polls.


The four-day conference was opened by remarks from NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. The following morning the delegates were treated to a pertinent and humorous speech from Republican National Chairman, Michael Steele in a first ever visit from an RNC chairman to the NEA building.


Mr. Steele turned out to be a warm, bright, engaging person. Among other experiences, he had taught students Civics in a monastery and rose from a very impoverished background. He was totally different than the image I had of him from TV, which seems fixated on portraying him as one-dimensional and dominated by extreme elements within the party. Later that day another keynote address was given by Hotline’s Amy Walter.

On Wednesday evening our entire group of NEA-GOP delegates was bused across D.C. to attend the Republican Main Street Partnership annual dinner. This is a gathering of Republican leaders from government, business, and education.


Seated at the head table were Dennis Van Roekel, and U.S. Representatives Mike Castle and Judy Biggert, both key pro-public education Republicans serving on the House Education and Labor Committee.


This year’s dinner honored Transportation secretary Ray La Hood, who delivered insightful and encouraging remarks. It was a great opportunity for RLC delegates to meet members of Congress, engage in conversations and help lay the groundwork for future relationships.

On Thursday, we heard from Representative Dave Reichert, another pro-public education member of Congress. You probably remember Rep. Reichert as the SWAT commander and sheriff of King County, Washington, and a leading member of the Green River task force which was formed to track down the Green River Killer.

Later that day, our delegates spread out over Capitol Hill and met with most Republican members of Congress who in turn were eager to learn more about NEA’s Republican membership and their efforts to work with Republican policymakers on issues of common concern.

New friend Lee Deming and I met with Rep. Dennis Rehberg. In true Montana fashion, Mr. Rehberg was a few moments late and apologized because he was checking the internet to see how he had done in the recent drawing for elk tags back in Montana. A good open discussion of various educational issues ensued including No Child Left Behind, vouchers, and starved school budgets.


Of local interest to the many Broadus Masonic brothers, Rep. Rehberg spotted my Scottish Rite Masonic ring and exclaimed, “Hey, I’ve got one of those!” At which time I informed him that his dad had helped me go through some of the degree work.


While reflecting on the conference and public education in general the following thoughts arose. At a time when partisan politics has a strangle hold on our nation, maybe a model for improvement can be formed within the grassroots, democratically elected framework of the NEA.


The democratic voice of our organization has encouraged the quiet elephant in the room to speak up. Maybe new standards of civil debate and respectful dialogue will become contagious and radiate out from our professional organization and continue along the newly laid foundations of cross-party coalitions being established. One can only hope.

Public education has suffered at the hands of the extremes of both political parties in the last fifty years. In the sixties and seventies, educational fads influenced by the far left consumed much time and money to implement and then replace. Remember the open classroom concept in our local school where four teachers had to compete for their classes’ attention in the same large room, and the open library where many students didn’t bother to check out books before taking them.


Then from the far right came the manufactured crisis “Johnny Can’t Read, “ which dishonestly compared statistics from different decades.

Now we have an underfunded federal mandate put together by a few congressmen in a back room with absolutely no input from the educational community. “No Child Left Behind” doesn’t reward schools that are doing a great job but penalizes them for not being able to improve. Teachers are forced to have students learn to memorize a narrow scope of information in order to pass numerous tests.

The Obama administration’s vision of change and improvement in national education is titled Race to The Top. Unfortunately it is just an extension and expansion of pay vouchers and charter schools.


This will further relax standards for quality teacher preparation, licensure, and professional development. It will drain even more funding from public education and gut collective bargaining that will cause fewer students to enter the teaching profession and more teachers to drop out at the of teacher shortage.


Its recommended performance based pay will depend on general test scores and administrational favoritism rather than professionalism and work ethic.


Recent studies have proven that even as underfunded as public schools are, they are equal to and usually doing better than charter schools and voucher programs which take tax dollars away from them. To put this into perspective, public schools do not get to pick and choose students but are dedicated to all who apply.


Unfortunately a few try to discredit public schools at every opportunity. Their hope is to dip into taxpayer dollars in order to teach students what to think rather than how to think.

A strong point made by NEA President Dennis Van Roekel is as follows: Education is the best investment we can make for long term economic growth. Over a 50 year period, common stocks returned an average of 6.3% a year. A 2006 World Bank study found a dollar invested in education returns 14.3% annually in the form of increased tax revenue and reduced government spending. Preventing one student from dropping out of school will save the government more than $209,000 over that person’s lifetime. This is a sobering statistic when you consider that as many as half of our inner-city minority youth are currently dropping out.

As a nation we need to work together, educate ourselves on facts rather then listen to sound bites, and elect politicians who realize the importance of public education.