Leading Educators to Make Positive Changes

A commitment to public education and social justice drives John Stocks’ work to transform America’s schools.

In his first keynote speech to the membership of the teachers’ union he heads, John Stocks ’81 focused on a principle familiar to generations of Greeners: social justice.

Addressing the 9,000 attendees at the National Education Association’s 2012 Representative Assembly, NEA Executive Director Stocks lauded the achievements of “social justice patriots” throughout the organization’s 155-year history who “challenge our present in order to forge a better future for all of us.”

Citing rising voter suppression tactics, destructive racial profiling and “growing economic inequality in America,” he urged educators to individually and collectively continue working to “defend democracy, fight for equal opportunity and create a more just society”—not just in the classroom, but beyond. He reminded them that as members of the largest union in the United States, they served as a check on big money’s influence on policy makers, saying, “Time and time again, I have seen that the only effective answer to organized corporate greed in America is organized labor! And the one-percenters in this country know that—it’s no secret why they’re trying to destroy the labor movement. To the one percent, organized labor stands between them and their ability to have complete control of our political economy.”

Stocks’ commitment to social justice, his keen understanding of collective action, and his leadership skills were honed by his experience at Evergreen. His first program was Applied Environmental Studies, taught by faculty members Oscar Soule, Carolyn Dobbs and Russell Lidman, and he dove into a group project to research aquaculture, tidal flow and water quality in Totten Inlet, where oyster growers were facing a shutdown of their business by the state. “We put together a report in which we argued that the state was being unfair in decertifying the oyster beds and jeopardizing the economic survival of the families involved,” he says. “The oyster growers loved us. They had nobody to help them and we made a case for them.”

Stocks also joined the then-active student fire station on campus, which he cites as “one of the most remarkable opportunities Evergreen provided.” He served as engine driver and ambulance crew member and, as a participant in a college student-run, self-help legal aid program, supported two other station members in their quest to become Olympia’s first women firefighters. “We advocated for these women not to be disqualified from being hired by the Olympia Fire Department because of the discriminatory physical test,” he says. “We helped break a major glass ceiling.”

The legal assistance program helped people with a range of problems from landlord-tenant disputes and small claims issues to civil rights questions. They also pitched in to defend scores of Evergreen students who were arrested in 1978 protesting the construction of the twin Satsop nuclear reactors located between Olympia and Aberdeen. Stocks worked with faculty advisors Rob Knapp, Niels Skov and Richard Cellarius studying nuclear reactor physics to prep the defense lawyers for the students’ trial, which was averted when the charges were dismissed soon after the 1979 partial reactor meltdown at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. The Satsop reactors were never completed.

Unions have to respond to the needs of society beyond their membership and enlist in broader movements.

John Stocks, executive director of the National Education Association
At the 2012 National Education Association’s Representative Assembly, Executive
Director John Stocks urges educators to become “activists for social justice and
equal opportunity in America.”

After graduating, Stocks began his career as a community organizer of low- and moderate-income people in Boise, Idaho, before taking on the role of executive director of Idaho Fair Share, a grassroots citizen action organization devoted to keeping utility rates affordable for working families. In 1988, he was elected as a Democrat to the Idaho State Senate, defeating a four-term incumbent. During his one session in the legislature, he joined forces with a conservative senator to gain protections for citizens facing bankruptcy over medical bills.

He left the senate when he was offered a government relations position with the 98,000-member Wisconsin Education Association Council, the NEA affiliate in his wife Connie’s home state, where he oversaw the organization’s public relations, legislative, political action, and teaching and learning departments. During his tenure, the union lobbied to expand early childhood education, improve student achievement, lower class sizes, and ensure professional standards for teachers.

After working on a special 18-month project for the NEA that included “revamping the organization’s membership organizing capacity,” Stocks was recruited to become the organization’s first-ever deputy executive director.

Seven years later, he was promoted to the top post, with responsibility for a $352 million annual budget and a staff of 535. The NEA represents more than 3 million members in the field of education—from preschool to university graduate programs— including teachers, support professionals, higher education faculty and staff, school administrators, retired educators and students preparing to become teachers. At the time of his appointment, the media reported on his reputation as a smart pragmatist and a skilled strategist, his talent for working across the aisle, his political effectiveness and integrity and his progressive ideals.

Stocks’ vision for a better public school system includes a reversal from the standardized test-driven approach imposed by the No Child Left Behind Act. He says educators must provide students with the opportunity to learn skills based on critical thinking, problem solving, collaboration, inquiry and innovation.

He is running the union at a challenging time, when teachers are a besieged and discontented lot. Last year, teachers’ job satisfaction plummeted to a 25-year low, according to the long-running MetLife Survey of the American Teacher, and public schools are under pressure to reinvent themselves in response to budget cuts and emerging technology.

Stocks says that in addition to its involvement in the traditional advocacy roles of ensuring fair wages, hours and conditions of employment for members, the union “has a role in ensuring that the educational system is the best quality it can be for the students. I firmly believe that the union has to take responsibility for the quality of the professionals in the schools,” he says. That means teachers themselves must reclaim responsibility for the entire continuum of their careers, including induction and mentoring; professional standards and certification; and evaluation and professional growth.

Beyond those two roles, he argues that the union must be involved in social justice advocacy, admitting that this is a controversial stance since, “some only want the union to be involved in its traditional roles. Unfortunately that’s not possible.

“Unions have to respond to the needs of society beyond their membership and enlist in broader movements,” says Stocks, citing movements to remove money in politics, protect the right to vote, and challenge racial discrimination. “They have to advocate for the greater good, the public trust, the broad swath of the majority of Americans who don’t have the kind of power and clout that the one percent has. Unless we can appeal to that, unions will become useless and irrelevant.”

With Stocks at the helm of the NEA, that won’t happen. As he told the 2009 Tides Momentum Conference, he believes “public education is and must continue to be the one universal public institution that provides equal opportunity for America’s disadvantaged children and families.” This is rooted in great part in the formative years he spent at Evergreen, which he says “helped forge my values, beliefs and convictions.”