Former Utah teacher to lead National Education Association
By Lisa Schencker
The Salt Lake TribuneFirst published Jul 07 2014 10:28AM
The incoming president of the nation’s largest teachers’ union knows something about hefty class sizes and low per-pupil funding.
She taught in Utah, after all.
Utah teachers "are so common sense, and we can stretch a dollar until you can see through it," said Lily Eskelsen Garcia. "We know how to use resources well. No one can say we’re wasting money in Utah. What we want are common sense solutions and tools to do our job, and what we want is an end to toxic testing that’s actually punishing our kids."
High-stakes testing is just one of the issues Eskelsen Garcia plans to tackle when she becomes president of the 3-million-member National Education Association (NEA) in September. Eskelsen Garcia was elected president of the union Friday at its annual meeting and representative assembly in Denver.
Eskelsen Garcia began her career as a lunch lady and then worked as a kindergarten aide.
After graduating magna cum laude in elementary education from the University of Utah, she taught for about a decade at Orchard Elementary in West Valley City. She later earned a master’s degree in instructional technology and spent a year teaching at the Salt Lake City homeless shelter and a year teaching abused and neglected children at the Christmas Box House.
She became more involved in the Utah Education Association (UEA) as a teacher when she had 39 fifth-graders one school year. Utah has long had some of the largest class sizes in the country, and the lowest per-pupil funding in the nation.
"I thought, ‘Who does this? Who does this to kids?’" Eskelsen Garcia said in an interview. "I knew UEA was lobbying the Legislature for class size reduction money and textbook money and all these things I needed, and I thought, ‘That’s a group I want to get involved with.’"
Over the years, her involvement grew. She was named Utah Teacher of the Year after nine years of teaching. In 1990, she became UEA president, a post she held until 1996.
Over time, she became known for her blunt language about education, and for her advocacy through music — often strumming a guitar and singing songs such as "I Got the Teaching-in-Utah Blues."
She also unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1998 as a Democrat.
Though some detractors have labeled her as too liberal, she is proud of the things the UEA was able to accomplish in Utah. That includes working with Republican lawmakers and governors over the years to reduce class sizes. It’s a type of collaboration she hopes to bring to the national scene.
"We worked with Republican governors and legislatures to get those things passed," Eskelsen Garcia said. "I think that’s what we’re missing nationally. It’s just so divisive."
Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh, current UEA president, said she’s excited for Eskelsen Garcia’s leadership.
"She knows what we’re facing in Utah classrooms, which is what is being actually faced across this country," Gallagher-Fishbaugh said Monday.
She also said she looks forward to Eskelsen Garcia addressing "the overuse and abuse of standardized assessments."
Eskelsen Garcia said she doesn’t oppose the new Common Core academic standards or testing. But she said kids are now being over-tested, and the results are being used for inappropriate purposes.
Advocates of testing have long said that measurement of schools, students and teachers is necessary in order to improve education and hold schools accountable.
Some lawmakers and policy leaders, in Utah and nationally, have also had contentious relationships with the UEA and NEA over the years, saying the union protects teachers more than students, and makes it overly difficult to fire ineffective educators. Some say class size reduction is also overrated.
Judi Clark, executive director of the Utah group Parents for Choice in Education, said Eskelsen Garcia has a "big challenge on her hands," considering a recent court case in California and other issues.
In a landmark decision, a Los Angeles Superior Court judge recently ruled that parts of the tenure and due process protections for California teachers violated students’ rights.
"I think taxpayers and parents have really kind of wised up and they understand the teachers’ unions are really about their members. They’re not about kids," Clark said. "I would say probably the teachers’ union has been one of the biggest impediments really in helping prepare our kids for academic success."
Parents for Choice and the unions went head-to-head last decade in the fight over private school vouchers, which were ultimately defeated in Utah.
Eskelsen Garcia said in a statement released Monday that the NEA will continue to confront those "who want to dismantle and privatize public education while de-professionalizing our very noble teaching profession."
Her statement continued: "We will not stand by and allow the corporate take-over of our public schools to continue."
She said as NEA president, she’d also like to work on immigration issues.
Eskelsen Garcia, whose mother emigrated to the U.S. from Panama, will also be the union’s first Latina leader. She said something, in particular, must be done for undocumented kids who were brought to America by their parents.
"It’s a great concern of our members that something compassionate be done to take that into consideration, that these children are in the country through no decision of their own, and we ought to ... make sure all our children have a safe place to call home," Eskelsen Garcia said.
Eskelsen Garcia said her own family provides an example of U.S. immigration issues. She got married a year ago, but her husband still lives in Mexico and is now in his 13th month of working on gaining residency in the U.S.
Eskelsen Garcia’s presidency will be the first time in recent history that the NEA will be led by an all-minority, all-female leadership team.
Prior to her election as president, Eskelsen Garcia served as NEA secretary-treasurer and vice president.
Kim Burningham, a longtime state school board member and former lawmaker, called Eskelsen "a strong advocate for public education."
And he, of course, remembers her guitar.