Solidarity or a Safety Risk? Tensions Flare as the NEA Prepares to Convene in Florida

EdWeek | By Madeline Will | June 28, 2023

As thousands of educators prepare to meet next week to map out the priorities of the nation’s largest teachers’ union, one issue has already sparked debate: the location.

The National Education Association is expecting approximately 6,000 delegates to attend its annual representative assembly in Orlando, Fla., from July 3-6. Educators will vote on where to direct the union’s money and attention, and there will likely be a lot of discussion about how the union should respond to the political and cultural debates engulfing educators and schools.

But by holding its representative assembly in a state that has led the way with restrictions on transgender rights, the NEA is striking a difficult balance. The union has said that it wants to support and rally behind its members who live and work in Florida, but some LGBTQ+ members say the decision to hold the assembly there puts their safety at risk. Abortion restrictions in the state have also made some pregnant delegates hesitant to travel there.

Two LGBTQ+ advocacy groups, the Human Rights Campaign and Equality Florida, issued a travel advisory last month, warning that Florida laws and policies pose “significant risk to the health and safety of many.” The NAACP also issued a travel advisory for the state, saying the state is “openly hostile” toward people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals.

“I know there aren’t easy answers, but I also know that a lot of queer, trans, nonbinary teachers who would have otherwise been attending the RA can’t,” said Flint, a trans nonbinary teacher and content creator who does not use their last name online for fear of doxxing.

Flint is a delegate for the California Teachers Association, and although they are not a national delegate and wouldn’t have attended the representative assembly in an official capacity, they said they would have liked to go as an onlooker to produce content to share on social media about the NEA’s work.

But there are real safety concerns, Flint said, pointing to new state laws that have restricted some medical care for transgender adults and that have made it a misdemeanor trespassing offense for someone to use a bathroom that doesn’t align with their sex at birth.

“This isn’t about feeling uncomfortable; this isn’t about feeling bad in a place that doesn’t like trans people,” they said. “This is about being thrown into jail because someone can’t guess what gender I am. … There’s nothing that the NEA can do to make Florida safe for trans educators.”

A group of transgender educators have been raising concerns about the representative assembly’s location for the past year and have called for the NEA to cancel it altogether, Flint said. Union leadership listened to the group’s concerns but declined to change the location, they said.

In an emailed statement, NEA spokesperson Staci Maiers said bringing together a diverse group of educators from across the country will send an important message to politicians who are hoping “educators will shut up and go away quietly.”

“Leaders of our state-level affiliate, the Florida Education Association, wanted NEA not to abandon Floridians but stand in solidarity with their work to reclaim public education and protect all public school students,” Maiers wrote. “NEA gathers in Orlando because our fierce pro-public education, pro-worker, pro-justice movement demands it and because lasting change requires us to step into the gap and demand it boldly.”

The NEA will host protests against state laws

Florida has passed a wave of legislation targeting transgender children and adults this year, including one law that bans gender-affirming care for minors and another that prohibits schools from requiring students or employees to refer to each other with pronouns that don’t align with their sex at birth. Transgender and nonbinary educators are also prohibited from sharing their pronouns with students.

The state also expanded its so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which now prohibits instruction about sexual orientation or gender identity for all grades, except when required by state standards. This law and others have also made it easier for books in classroom and school libraries to be challenged: Florida ranked as the state with the second highest number of individual book bans this school year, behind Texas, according to a report by PEN America.

The NEA will support two official protests during the convention. On July 1, delegates are encouraged to “protest the extremist agenda” of Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and state legislators by attending a teach-in and a march, hosted by Florida for All, a statewide coalition of liberal organizations. The protest will focus on “the attacks on public education and affordable housing,” according to the NEA’s agenda.

And on July 5, the union will host a “Freedom to Learn” rally to protest book bans, the “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, and the state’s school voucher expansion.

Andrew Spar, the president of the Florida Education Association, said his members want to know that the rest of the NEA has their backs.

“I’ve always believed that as a union movement, we don’t run away when there’s a problem—we go in and stand up for what we believe in,” he said. “I think it’s vitally important that educators are coming to Florida … to send a message to students, to families, to educators in this state: We see you, we hear you, and we stand with you.”

The idea of supporting Florida educators has resonated with some delegates.

“Initially, I was very unsure why we still committed to having the RA in Florida,” said Jacquelyn Mancinelli, a high school English teacher in Voorhees Township, N.J., and a delegate.

But after hearing from the NEA leadership about the importance of standing alongside Florida members, she reconsidered.

“We can’t forget we have educators in Florida who need our support, and I think it sends a really powerful message that we’re standing there in solidarity,” Mancinelli said.

Even so, some NEA members remain concerned, given the laws in the state. One delegate, who asked to remain anonymous since she didn’t get permission from the NEA to speak on the record, said she is pregnant and feels unsettled spending time in a state where abortion is illegal after 15 weeks of pregnancy, with some exceptions.

If something goes wrong, she might have to drive to another state to seek life-saving treatment, the delegate said.

A proposed change to future convention sites

NEA’s procedural rules already forbid holding meetings in locations where any delegates “are likely to experience discriminatory treatment.” A proposed bylaw amendment would add the following language: “which shall include the denial of medical services due to a delegate’s ethnicity, race, gender, sexual orientation, and/or reproductive status.”

Stephen Hogan, who submitted the amendment as part of a group of 50 delegates, wrote that since “there are now several states in which routine medical services for women and transgender individuals are no longer provided or are more difficult to obtain,” there needs to be more consideration about where the representative assembly is held. If the amendment passes, future sites that are already contracted will need to be reviewed, wrote Hogan, who is from Illinois.

The NEA board did not take a position on the proposal, which will be voted on by delegates next week. (Hogan did not respond to Education Week’s request for comment.)

The representative assembly will be held in blue cities and states for the next three years: Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., and Denver. In 2027, though, the representative assembly is slated for Indianapolis. And in 2029, it is scheduled to be held in Kansas City, Mo.

The Indiana state legislature has passed a near-total abortion ban, but the law is being challenged in the state supreme court. And abortion is completely banned in Missouri, except in cases of a medical emergency. Missouri has also imposed some restrictions on gender-affirming care, although that law will expire in 2027.

Since the locations for the NEA representative assemblies are determined years in advance and based on a variety of factors, including venue size and availability, changes are rare—but not unprecedented. Last year, the NEA canceled its plans to host the representative assembly in Dallas, switching instead to Chicago.

The 74 reported that the switch was due to threatened boycotts from state affiliates over Texas policies on immigration, abortion, and voting, but NEA President Becky Pringle denied those reports in an interview with EdWeek.

Instead, she said, the decision was made for COVID-19 safety reasons. Delegates were required to be fully vaccinated and wear masks last year, and Pringle said she didn’t think she could have implemented those requirements in Texas.

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