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NEA vice president shares vision for public higher education

Lily Eskelsen

NEA VP Lily Eskelsen García visited UMass Amherst to meet with MTA higher ed members about to start contract talks.

In a spirited talk with educators, students and staff October 16 at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, National Education Association Vice President Lily Eskelsen García championed the value of a strong public higher education system.

Eskelsen García drew on her own story, as a lunch lady and kindergarten aide before she was persuaded to become a teacher herself, in order to illustrate the value of high-quality, accessible public higher education. She worked and relied on federally backed student loans in order to get her degree from the University of Utah. Upon graduation, she taught elementary school, eventually being named Utah’s Teacher of the Year in 1989. She also ran for Congress in 1998. “My country made an investment in me,” she said.

Eskelsen García drew a packed house at the UMass Student Union. Following her talk she met with about a dozen students from the College of Education and the Labor Studies Program. The three MTA units on the UMass campus — the University Staff Association, Professional Staff Union and Massachusetts Society of Professors — had invited Eskelsen García as a kickoff event as contract talks get underway on campus.

Eskelsen García blended humor and insight during her talk, which illustrated two different visions of public higher education.

“At the NEA, we believe the business of education is to open students’ minds.”

- NEA Vice President Lily Eskelsen García

“There are those motivated by greed and fear,” said Eskelsen García, describing interests that advocate putting colleges and universities in private hands and shrinking public funding for higher education. “At the NEA, we believe the business of education is to open students’ minds.”

Acknowledging the need for high standards, Eskelsen García bemoaned the use of college rankings and rigid standards to measure the quality of education. “Paint-by-numbers reform makes us sick,” she said, describing a cycle in which faulty ranking systems can form the basis for criticizing public education, then fuel campaigns for reducing funding, destabilizing the system and opening it up to further criticism.

When Eskelsen García took questions from the audience, a student asked what she thought the relationship should be between students and unions. Eskelsen García responded, “You are our biggest untapped treasure, the diamonds. As a union, we need to build an organization outside of our own organization and organize students and families into communities and fight for what this community wants and needs.”

Eskelsen García brought that same message into her smaller meeting with students, drawing the connection between union membership and education and explaining how a national union of 3 million members finds its power in grass-roots organizing. “The union creates a circle of influence to achieve the education goals our members want,” she said.

MTA President Paul Toner, who attended Eskelsen García’s talk, said that the educator unions on the UMass campus and throughout the state’s public colleges and universities “are at the forefront of efforts to maintain quality and affordability for students.”

“When you look at Lily’s own story and successes, it’s plain to see how public colleges and universities make it possible for people to reach their potential, and that benefits us all in the long run,” Toner said.