New teachers’ union chief puts equity first

Kim Anderson returns to the National Education Association amid turbulent political environment

Kim Anderson is the new executive director of the National Education Association. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Kim Anderson is the new executive director of the National Education Association. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 3, 2019 at 5:30am

Kim Anderson will be the first to tell you she got lucky. She grew up in Fairfax County, Virginia, the well-heeled D.C. suburb, where she attended “one of the best public school systems in the country,” before receiving an undergraduate degree from the College of William & Mary, one of the country’s top public colleges.

Now, she’s taken on a new role as executive director of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, with the hopes of making schools everywhere as good as the ones she attended.

[What in the ho, hey is Roll Call doing talking to The Lumineers?]

“It shouldn’t have been luck that got me here,” Anderson said. “It should have been an intentional commitment on the part of our entire country, particularly our lawmakers, to say that it should exist for everyone.”

Anderson said the fight for equity is one of the most important challenges facing public education today. “We have examples of excellence” — like her own Fairfax County Public Schools — “all across this country,” she said. “So why can’t our best school exist everywhere?”

As she pursues that mission, Anderson brings a background steeped in Washington politics to her new role. A former Hill staffer for retired Virginia Democratic Sen. Charles S. Robb, she most recently served as executive vice president for the Democracy Alliance, a progressive donor network.

Anderson also spent more than 15 years with the NEA as director of government relations, and later as the organization’s senior director of the Center for Advocacy & Outreach.

While she originally planned to be a teacher, Anderson said she was bitten by the “law bug,” which launched her on a public policy trajectory focused on education advocacy.

However, she said, the current political moment is unlike anything she’s experienced.

“Having been a young Senate staffer many years ago, the nature and quality of the debate has declined so dangerously,” she said. “To say that we are in scary times for the country is an understatement.”

The upside, though, is what Anderson describes as a “movement moment” — unprecedented activism by teachers across the country. Teacher strikes and walkouts made headlines in 2018 as part of the #RedForEd movement, and educator activism has continued this year with strikes in Los Angeles, Denver and Oakland.

“Educators have had enough, and they see the devastating impact that it’s having on children, and they are angry about not being able to serve kids better,” Anderson said. “They know that we can do better.”

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As the 2020 Democratic hopefuls court teachers and seek the NEA’s endorsement — traditionally a big prize given the group’s 3 million-strong membership — Anderson said the union’s members are approaching the race differently.

“Educators aren’t waiting for politicians to come to them,” she said. “They’re going to politicians and opening their mouths and lifting their voices and showing their hearts about what’s important for kids. We saw that in #RedforEd and we’ll continue to see that through this presidential cycle.”

The group’s scope has also expanded in response to the current political moment, according to Anderson. At a time when government “isn’t functioning well,” Anderson said the NEA has recently given more attention to voter suppression, access to the ballot box and other democracy issues than it has in the past.

“It’s necessary, and it is a reflection of what educators believe as well, because if you think about the education system, it is and should be what a student’s first model of what democracy and a just society is,” she said.

Anderson is only just making her return to the NEA after her stint at the Democracy Alliance, so she said she’s still getting up to speed on some of the issues. However, she said that supporting a presidential candidate who will nominate an Education secretary with public education experience is a top priority for the group going into 2020.

Anderson calls President Donald Trump’s choice of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who was widely criticized for lacking relevant experience to serve in the role, “an act of colossal malfeasance” and “an affront to the entire country.”

“We are demanding that the next president appoint someone who has experience with public education,” Anderson said.

Both former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who polls show leading the 2020 Democratic primary race, have promised that, if elected, they would appoint a teacher to head the Education Department.

But while DeVos has been a focal point for criticism, other issues — among them free college, student debt forgiveness and charter schools — are at the forefront of the primary debate on education.

In particular, leading Democrats have shifted almost completely on charters. Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama backed giving families more educational opportunity, but many 2020 Democratic candidates condemn charters. Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont seeking the Democratic nomination for president, has gone so far as to call for halting all federal funding to charter schools, alleging that they contribute to self-segregation.

For the NEA’s part, Anderson stresses that the group isn’t against charter schools. At least not if they uphold the same standards, attention to quality, transparency and strong governance as more traditional public schools do, and allow their teachers to unionize.

That isn’t necessarily the reality of charter schools — most of which are not unionized — so far as the NEA is concerned. It recently graded states’ systems and found only one, Maryland, whose charter laws it rated “adequate” or a B-. It gave 40 states an F.

What’s more, Anderson is skeptical of the growth of charters, which now serve a majority of students in some cities. New Orleans, for example, is now an all-charter district.

She points out that charters were meant to be experimental and that “at their inception were actually never meant to be the scaled solution for public education. They were never designed to reach scale. They were designed to be laboratories of innovation.” And Anderson said she is uncertain whether they can succeed on such a level.

However, she said there’s a more important question to ask when it comes to charters. “Our concern about charter schools starts with a notion, again rooted in equity, but it’s also about transparency and accountability,” Anderson said. “What’s the quality of the product you’re delivering, and are you taking advantage of public taxpayer dollars or are you actually providing a public voice … in how those schools are governed?”

That too remains an open question, particularly with a mosaic of state-level charter school laws resulting in vastly different standards across the country. But at every level, Anderson said, “one of the most important challenges continues to be the fight to ensure equity for every student.”

And that, certainly, is a challenge for which she’s well-equipped. Because while Anderson may still be finding her footing in her new role back at the NEA, she’s undoubtedly eager to get back to education advocacy.

“With the NEA,” Anderson said, “my two greatest loves — love of the value of policy and what it does to shape our lives, and the love of education — completely converge.”