The leader of America's largest teachers union called for tax fairness Friday in a speech to Nebraska union teachers and criticized the budget proposed by congressional Republicans.
Dennis Van Roekel, president of the 3.2-million-member National Education Association, urged teachers to become active in the 2012 elections, strive for social justice and pursue a higher level of political discourse.
Van Roekel called for raising the bar for entry into the teaching profession, improving teacher evaluation systems and eliminating tax loopholes that he said drain money from education.
He said teachers and their unions are under assault around the country as conservatives try to save money by stripping away collective bargaining rights and payroll deductions for union dues.
Thirty-seven states cut education funding this year, he said.
The crowd offered hearty applause several times during his keynote speech at the Nebraska State Education Association's annual delegate assembly. The event is being held at the Embassy Suites hotel and conference center in La Vista.
The Nebraska State Education Association is the state's NEA affiliate. The annual gathering continues Saturday as the delegates vote to set policy for the coming year and present annual awards.
Van Roekel, animated and charismatic, told nearly 300 active and retired teachers and school staffers that tax cuts in what he called "the Romney-Ryan budget" would result in spending cuts for education and social programs.
He called for plugging seven corporate tax loopholes, saying it would save nearly $1.5 trillion over the next 10 years. One quarter of that money would be enough to send all the nation's poor children under age 5 to preschool, he said.
Van Roekel said it's "crazy" when business people complain that the United States has the highest corporate tax rate.
"What difference does it make if you don't pay it?" he said.
He called the 2012 election critical. He urged teachers to rise above divisive political labels and talk about the important issues.
"We've lost that," he said. "And we need to bring that back. Civil discourse. It's part of a democracy. It's about civic responsibility."
He said the teachers union must pursue social justice.
"You can't have an organization with our core values and not care about social justice," he said.
"You can't have a democracy and not care about social justice, whether it's discrimination based on race or religion or sexual orientation, discrimination is discrimination and it's wrong. And we as an organization have to stand up and say that."
Van Roekel is a native of Le Mars, Iowa, and a former high school math teacher. He was elected NEA president in 2008.
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