Academic journal article Education Next

Teacher of the Year to Union President: Lily Eskelsen Garcia Is Poised to Take over at the NEA

Academic journal article Education Next

Teacher of the Year to Union President: Lily Eskelsen Garcia Is Poised to Take over at the NEA

Article excerpt

Just above the sofa in the comfortable office of Lily Eskelsen Garcia, the 58-year-old president-in-waiting of the National Education Association (NEA), 10 class pictures of young children are on display. The faces of the 4th, 5th, and 6th graders she taught at Orchard Elementary School in suburban Salt Lake City in the 1980s are small and faded, and their smiles convey little about them or their lives.

But Eskelsen Garcia knows their stories, and she's happy to tell them. The student with a learning disability she awarded an "A" for drawing a picture and describing the three branches of government to his class. The boy who grew up to be a staffer on Capitol Hill. The girl and boy from different classes who later married and sent her a wedding picture.

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Eskelsen Garcia had the photographs put up when she became vice president of the union that claims 3 million members to show visitors that she sees herself, first and foremost, as a teacher.

"This is who I am, this is my expertise, this is what I bring to this job," Eskelsen Garcia explains.

It's been 24 years since Eskelsen Garcia left full-time teaching, one year after being recognized as Utah's Teacher of the Year in 1989. The honor gave her a statewide audience, and, a natural entertainer, she used the turn in the spotlight to become an outspoken advocate for teachers. That year, the Utah legislature cut taxes rather than use a budget surplus to increase education spending that had been flat for three years. Utah governor Norman Bangerter dismissed teachers' criticisms, telling them publicly they should take two aspirin and "go back to work."

The comment touched off a one-day statewide teachers' strike, and at a rally Eskelsen Garcia strapped on her guitar and sang a protest song she'd written for the occasion: "The Utah Teacher Blues."

The song's last verse seemed to foretell her future:

She was urged to run for a leadership position in the Utah Education Association (UEA), the NEA's state affiliate, and was elected president as a write-in candidate, despite having held no previous union position. The next year, teachers received a 6 percent increase in compensation championed by Bangerter himself, although the UEA was pushing for an increase of double that. Over the next six years, Eskelsen Garcia pushed unrelentingly for higher salaries, which were among the lowest in the nation, and for smaller classes, which were among the largest.

Utah ranked 50th among the states in average teacher's salary in 2011, and its class sizes were among the largest. Nonetheless, Utah's scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have been at or above the national average in reading, mathematics, and science over the past two decades.

Having experienced the exhilaration that comes with influence, Eskelsen Garcia ran for Congress in 1998 as a Democrat in a district that included Salt Lake City. Her campaign was criticized for its negativity, and she lost badly.

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Beginning in 1996, she served on the NEA's nine-person executive committee, a half-time union position, and then in 2002, defeated two other candidates to become the union's secretary-treasurer. After moving to the NEA's headquarters in Washington, D.C., she assumed the vice presidency in 2008 when Dennis Van Roekel, a high school math teacher in Arizona for 23 years, became president. Union rules limit presidents to two three-year terms, and Eskelsen Garcia is running unopposed to replace him. So, this July 4 in Denver, during the annual meeting of the NEA's 9,000-delegate representative assembly, she will almost assuredly become the union's first woman president since Mary Hatwood Futrell was elected in 1983.

In her new role, she says, she will use stories from her teaching days to connect with NEA members as well as with the union's critics.

"I know what got me elected state president," Eskelsen Garcia confides. …

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