(CNSNews.com) - The newly elected president of the nation's largest teachers' union vowed to continue the union's fight against school vouchers and to make schools safer while helping educators "reconnect with parents."
After being elected at the union's annual convention in Dallas, Reg Weaver, an Illinois science teacher and National Education Association president, said the Bush administration's education program was developed without "union input."
"Public education and public educators are faced with enormous challenges that require our immediate attention," Weaver said.
"We must focus on an education reform package largely developed without our input. And, we must concentrate on the upcoming political campaigns to ensure that we support the right policymakers who understood the importance of public education," he added.
"We must work within an environment that recognizes that we are one in the fight for a quality public education for all students," Weaver said. "We must never forget or underestimate the fact that NEA's strength, influence and future is in our numbers."
NEA spokesperson Kathleen Lyons told CNSNews.com that Weaver would continue the union's fight against school vouchers.
Weaver criticized supporters of school vouchers during a speech last year in Milwaukee.
"These folks don't care about the education of all children. They say they don't want to leave any child behind, which is exactly what vouchers do," he said.
Weaver will formally takeover as NEA president in September, succeeding Bob Chase who has been president since 1996. Weaver served as vice president under Chase.
Weaver, 62, is the fourth African-American president in NEA's 145-year history.
He has been teaching for 35 years and is currently a middle school science teacher in the suburban Chicago city of Harvey.
Harvey School Superintendent Lela Bridges told the Chicago Tribune that Weaver is a "people person." She told the paper her favorite Weaver story:
"A student in Weaver's class one year often missed school and was the subject of classmates' jokes. Weaver learned the boy was homeless, took him to his own home, let him clean up, cooked him a meal and then took him shopping for new clothes," she said.
"Even though he had started working at the national level by then [with the NEA], he never forgot the children," Bridges said. "Most importantly, he believes in the children."
NEA officials say he is "an outspoken advocate for helping low-income schools and encouraging parental involvement."
"In the months ahead, we will be assessing and addressing a variety of issues," said Weaver. "But one thing will remain consistent: NEA will be a tireless, relentless advocate for children, students and public education."
He received high marks from Anne Davis, president of the Illinois Education Association, his home state's NEA local.
"Reg Weaver is precisely the person public education needs to articulate the concerns and vision of the true education experts: the men and women who work in classrooms and school buildings throughout the country," Davis said.
Weaver was the first African-American ever elected president of the Illinois Education Association. During his tenure from 1981-87, he helped lobby for the passage of the Illinois state mandatory collective bargaining law in 1984.
The law gave teachers the right to form unions and collectively negotiate contracts that addressed not only salaries, but concerns such as class sizes.
Mike Antonucci, director of the Education Intelligence Agency, a union watchdog is taking a wait and see approach to Weaver.
"Whatever his external agenda, we may not see it right away because his first order of business will be to deal with a plateau in membership growth -- and serious declines in many of his weaker state affiliates. It will probably be some time before we know if Weaver will be a new unionist, an old unionist, or something else entirely," said Antonucci.
"In the meantime," he said, "NEA, like any other large bureaucracy, will continue to operate as before, particularly since the line of succession from vice president to president has held steady for at least the last three NEA presidential elections.
"Bob Chase's tenure proved that the hand at the helm doesn't necessarily determine the course of the ship," Antonucci said.
Education Secretary Rodney Paige had no reaction to Weaver's election, according to his spokesperson Sonya Sanchez.
Union delegates also elected Dennis Van Roekel, a high school mathematics teacher from Phoenix, as vice president. Van Roekel has been the union's secretary-treasurer since 1997.
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