Education Secretary Arne Duncan listens as President Barack Obama speaks about education during a lunch meeting with teachers, on July 7, 2014, at the White House in Washington.
Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Incoming NEA head inherits tension with Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Former elementary school teacher Lily Eskelsen García will become president of America’s biggest labor union, the National Education Association (NEA), on Sept. 1. In the meantime, she already has plenty of work to do.

The soft-spoken educator was elected president of the NEA on July 4, and she has spent the subsequent two weeks preparing for a major battle over U.S. education policy, particularly with regard to standardized testing. That battle will pit her not only against the forces of the right, but also the current presidential administration. Tensions have never been higher between teachers’ unions and President Obama’s Department of Education, and those tensions have already become García’s problem.

“This year it had a critical mass of people that said enough is enough.”
Lily Eskelsen García

So far, García – who previously served as NEA’s secretary-treasurer for six years, followed by another six years as its vice president – has made no effort to downplay those tensions. In fact, her first remarks after being elected amounted to a broadside against the largely bipartisan policy of evaluating teachers based on standardized test scores.

“We must measure what matters and put students’ needs at the center of the system once again,” she said. “We can no longer allow politicians who have never stepped into a classroom define what it means to teach and learn.”

And she took the same message to this year’s Netroots Nation in Detroit, where it was greeted by raucous applause. In a speech during Thursday evening’s opening keynote ceremonies, García told an audience of progressive activists that she “cannot exaggerate the social justice crisis in our schools today.”

“ALEC loves this model,” she said. “They love the uncertainty of No Child Left Untested. They got a critical mass of politicians to believe it is possible for 100% of children to be above average, because all things are possible to people who don’t know what they’re talking about.”

That hard-line stance has placed García and the people who elected her into direct conflict with Arne Duncan, Obama’s secretary of education. Duncan is perhaps the nation’s foremost proponent of using test scores to judge teacher performance, to the growing consternation of teachers’ unions. The dispute came to a head at the same NEA conference where García was elected. In addition to electing a new president, the union voted in favor of a resolution calling for Duncan’s resignation.

“I always try to stay out of local union politics”
Arne Duncan, Education Secretary
“This has been ramping up,” García told msnbc. NEA members have proposed similar resolutions at prior union assemblies, but 2014 marked the first year that a majority voted in favor.

“This year it had a critical mass of people that said enough is enough,” García said. “And I think the frustration is they don’t see that the Department of Ed, with Secretary Duncan at the head of it, are at all impressed with the scientific evidence, the research, that says: Wait a minute, the best countries in the world … don’t rank their teachers, their kids, their schools, by standardized tests.”

Publicly, Duncan brushed off the vote of no confidence.

“I always try to stay out of local union politics,” he said. “I think most teachers do too.”

Yet a Department of Education spokesperson told the press that Duncan was looking forward to working with García, and she says that went to meet with him shortly after she was elected. She characterized her conversation with him as “interesting” and “honest.”

In conversation, García is soft-spoken but firm. Based on her description of her conversation with Duncan, neither side is likely to yield on the issue of standardized testing anytime soon.

“I made it clear to the secretary that I don’t want to demonize anybody. He’s sincere and he’s absolutely wrong,” she said. “We agreed at the end of that meeting; we were very clear. He was very clear that he thinks we need to stay on what he calls accountability. I believe that has come to mean you hit your number and there’s a consequence for not hitting your number. That’s disastrous, I let him know that I would keep telling people that’s disastrous.”

Despite the education secretary’s outwardly nonchalant reaction to the NEA vote, García says he seemed “hurt” and “surprisingly confused.” In her estimation, he didn’t realize the level of anger he had conjured up.

“Arne Duncan is not a bad man,” she said. “I think he sincerely believes this stuff.”

Despite their differences, says García, they ended the meeting with a hug.

Arne Duncan and Education Policy

Incoming NEA head inherits tension with Education Secretary Arne Duncan