Conservative educators and activists, annoyed for years by the political power of the National Education Association, are engaged in an unprecedented attack against the nation's largest teachers organization, raising questions about the control its 1.7 million members exercise over the minds of the young.
In a strategy session last month in suburban Springfield, about a dozen conservatives discussed possible legal action against the NEA. The conference, held at the Center on National Labor Policy, culminated months of other activities, including preparation of a comic book for hundreds of thousands of Western and Southwestern newspapers, featuring an NEA member advocating gun control and the hiring of homosexual teachers.
Don Cameron, executive director of the NEA, said the recent attacks are "outrageous," "vicious" and "direct." NEA leaders are expected to discuss the charges at a meeting this weekend of their board of directors.
But Steven Antosh, executive director of the center and coordinator of the Springfield conference, said action is needed because the NEA is a "major danger to Western civilization. Not only are they big in terms of membership, but these are the people that exercise control over the minds of the future generations of the United States."
The NEA was founded in 1857 to improve job conditions of teachers; it has become increasingly political since it made its first presidential endorsement (of Jimmy Carter) in 1976. More recently, it upset conservatives when it threw its weight -- and nearly 1 million volunteers -- behind Democratic presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale.
Besides endorsing candidates in political races, the association takes a prochoice stand on abortion and publishes curriculum guides on such controversial issues as nuclear war.
Even moderate educators not affiliated with the NEA express concerns about the organization's growing politicization.
"I think that at times they have hurt all teachers because of their liberal policies," said David Pickerill, head of the social studies department at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac and a Mondale supporter.
A teacher for more than 20 years, Pickerill said Churchill social studies teachers two years ago tried out the NEA's curriculum guide on nuclear war but abandoned it because they believed that it was "slanted" toward a nuclear freeze.
"The NEA is up to its neck in politics . . . " said Tom Shannon, executive director of the National Association of School Boards.
"The question is when the NEA loses big, does education lose also?" Shannon asked, in reference to Mondale's loss. "I'm concerned that the answer is yes."
The recent spate of attacks began in May with a Reader's Digest article, "Guess Who Spells Disaster for Education?" Various books then took up the call. In one, "NEA: Trojan Horse in American Education," Samuel Blumenfeld wrote, "The NEA's obsession with power ought to alarm and concern all Americans, for the teachers have the organizational means to control the political destiny of this nation."
The latest attack came in "What in the World's Going On in Your School?" a comic book first distributed as a paid insert in 194,000 Idaho newspapers.
Nearly 200,000 copies of the pamphlet have recently been inserted in newspapers in New Mexico, and publisher Ronald Rankin said he expects the booklet to be distributed in the next couple of months in California, Louisiana, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.
In one scene of the 16-page booklet, a long-haired teacher with a pierced ear and a peace symbol stands in front of a blackboard on which is written, "gay rights dance" and "peace at any price."
Although there are no specific numbers on how many organizations or people are involved in the attacks on the NEA, political observers say several new organizations, specifically founded as a counterpoint to the NEA, have sprung up in the last couple of years -- including some in the Washington area. Most established conservative groups either are directly or indirectly involved in criticizing the NEA, said Antosh.
"I don't know any type of conservative group, new right, old right . . . that doesn't not care for the NEA," said Antosh.
Participants at the Springfield conference agreed first to try through the courts and legislatures to undermine collective bargaining and agency shop agreements that require all teachers to join the union, Antosh said.
"We believe forced unionism is the ultimate threat to academic freedom," said Susan Staub, director of Concerned Educators Against Forced Unionism, a division of the National Right to Work Committee and one of the participants at the Springfield conference.
Next, conservatives say, they expect to hit the union where it will hurt most: new membership.
Sally Reed, author of the recently published "NEA: Propaganda Front of the Radical Left" and founder of the Washington-based National Council for Better Education, said in a November interview in Education Week that her 4,000-member organization is planning to mount a counter membership drive next fall when the NEA tries to recruit members.
Springfield conference participants also discussed publishing the voting records of NEA-endorsed candidates. The NEA contributed $1.4 million to political campaigns in the recent elections.
Conservatives say they are banking on the fact that the NEA membership appears to be more moderate than its leaders. Although figures are not yet available from the past election, 41 percent of NEA's members voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980 despite the union's endorsement of Carter.
Local members of NEA affiliates in Northern Virginia and Maryland -- District teachers are represented by an AFT affiliate -- say they have yet to see any mass attacks on their organizations. But NEA leaders are in the process of developing a strategy to counter various criticisms, including providing materials to local union leaders that point out inaccuracies in the charges. They also are looking at ways to better explain to the public why the organization takes certain positions on issues such as gun control.
The real purpose of the conservatives' attacks reaches beyond the NEA, said NEA executive director Cameron.
"They want to gain control of public schools to make sure their religious and political views are dominant," Cameron said. "The real issue is that the NEA is the only organization big enough and powerful enough to stop them from taking over public schools."
Cameron said charges that the NEA is trying to control the minds of children through its political activities are "ridiculous."
"Let's take the example of NEA's position on gun control of Saturday Night Specials . . . . We don't take that position because it's a nice liberal position," he said. "We take that position because children are getting killed in schools and teachers are being assaulted."
The NEA was long considered a moderate teachers organization opposed to strikes until the late 1960s, when teachers began to replace school administrators and superintendents in key leadership positions in the NEA. At that time, the American Federation of Teachers, with its advocacy of strikes, was considered more militant.
Now the AFT is considered to be the more moderate of the two organizations. Although it, too, endorsed Mondale, the AFT has taken more conciliatory stances on teacher examination tests for practicing teachers and merit pay for teachers -- at the heart of the Reagan education plan -- while the NEA remains opposed to the proposals.