Some politicians have cast teachers unions as obstacles to education reform. Lily Eskelsen García, president of the National Education Association, says the problem is “toxic testing.” (Kevin Lock)

On a warm September evening along coastal Georgia, Lily Eskelsen García, the face of 3 million teachers, paused to balance another plate of fried chicken and shake another hand. It was early evening and she was standing in a room at the Savannah Arts Academy, surrounded by parents, teachers and students.

For 12 hours, García, president of the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers union, had been visiting schools, taking photos with teachers and chatting up students. Now it was time to give The Speech, the one about how standardized testing has ruined public education.

“No Child Left Untested is an unmitigated disaster that has hurt kids for 13 years,” she said, referring to the Bush-era law that relied on test scores to measure progress at disadvantaged schools and to evaluate teachers. “It’s reduced what teachers are supposed to do to what will fit on a standardized test, and I don’t know one kid in the world who comes that way. Shame on us if we can’t find a better solution.”

The Speech was virtually the same at the other stops. She never used notes. She looked at ease, smiled and made eye contact. Before and after The Speech, she always asked students: What do you love about your school?

Her two-week back-to-school Opportunity for All Tour was a listening tour, photo op and pep rally blended together. Last year, she did her first tour in California. She said she chose to head south this year because “this is where so many inequities still exist.”

In 19 stops in four Southern states, and in various town halls and television interviews, what García kept digging at was: What makes a school a community hub where teachers and students can thrive?

She asked what kids loved about their schools to show how absurd it was to believe test scores could ever fully capture a school’s strengths and challenges.

García visits a classroom. At every stop, she asks students what they love about their school as a way of showing some of the things test scores fail to capture about a school’s challenges and strengths. (Kevin Lock)

The answers usually ran along the lines of “I love my teacher.” She tweeted one student’s response that his instructor’s teaching “makes us feel like we are in paradise.”

That may sound corny, but pumping up teachers is part of García’s job, just as much as fighting back against their critics, although she is often more consumed by the latter.

García is the face of the union’s year-old campaign against “toxic testing.” Teachers nationwide say the imperatives of high-stakes testing have robbed them of their creativity and autonomy in the classroom. García took that message to a face-to-face meeting in the Oval Office with President Obama and took him to task for supporting the use of test scores to rank schools and evaluate teachers. At the NEA’s 2014 convention, a majority of the 9,000 delegates there voted to call for his education secretary, Arne Duncan, to resign. (Without explanation, Duncan announced in early October that he would be stepping down at the end of the year.)

Duncan diplomatically referred to García as “passionate.” “We may not agree on everything,” he said, “but it’s always good to see educators advocating for students.”

Elected leaders from both parties have been harsher, accusing teachers unions of using their clout to protect their members’ jobs and to block meaningful reform. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) has called the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers “political thugs,” and New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) has said the unions represent “teacher salaries, teacher pensions, teacher tenure, teacher vacation rights,” but not students.

García said, “Being a politician’s punching bag is not a lot of fun, but it doesn’t scare me.” She has sought to debunk the notion that teachers unions “don’t care about kids” and “only care about protecting bad teachers.”

“To have a politician say the only thing wrong with schools are the unions — or if we could get rid of unions, schools would be able to flourish — what does he know about what my union is doing to make sure your kid and his teachers have what they need?” she said. “They should be thanking us instead of kicking us.”

García is greeted warmly in Savannah. She was elected NEA president last year. Supporters say she has been a forceful voice as Congress worked on a replacement for No Child Left Behind. (Kevin Lock)

As her red SUV sped along the road toward Charleston, S.C., García sat in the passenger seat chatting on her cellphone in Spanish with her husband, Mexican artist Alberto García. The couple exchanged vows last year at the NEA convention where García was elected the union’s first Latina president. In the back seat a staffer was busy drafting tweets and posting pictures on her blog, Lily’s Blackboard. The stop coming up was Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, site of the mass shooting in June that left nine dead, including an NEA member.

“The tragic events of April 4th and June 17th have led us here,” she said, referring to the massacre and the shooting death of Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, by a white North Charleston police officer who stopped him over a broken tail light.

García sees both incidents as inseparable from the racial and economic disparities teachers confront every day. In January, a new analysis of federal data showed that for the first time in at least 50 years, a majority of children served in public schools are from low-income families, something else test scores don’t capture.

With lawmakers in Washington working on a replacement for No Child Left Behind, which expired in 2007, the NEA’s members wanted their leaders to take a tougher tone. García and the union’s “toxic testing” message has found traction by aligning teachers’ anger over being evaluated by test scores and algorithms with a parental backlash against testing. As the primary messenger, García has earned the support of 77 percent of the NEA’s members and brought the first increase in membership in four years.

Long Island, N.Y., teacher Marla Kilfoyle directs the 50,000-member Badass Teachers Association, an NEA splinter group, and called García’s performance “authentic and immensely powerful.”

Kilfoyle was also glad that García “came out swingin’ against Duncan.” She credited García for the NEA’s success in persuading lawmakers to drop any federal requirement to use test scores to evaluate teachers as they debate a replacement for No Child Left Behind, a victory that now looks precarious. Larger questions about the role of federal oversight in K-12 education have held up the measure. In late September, Duncan said that the chances of passage were “probably worse” than 50-50with the announced departure of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who was key to shoring up Republican support. But Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he hoped to have a compromise version to the president by Thanksgiving.

García’s forceful tone has earned her fans, but it doesn’t necessarily play well everywhere. After hearing her speak at the College of Charleston, school board member Cindy Bohn Coats, who is not an NEA member, said she found García’s rhetoric “disappointing.” “My family is those ‘underprivileged children’ everyone references,” she said. “With an issue as emotionally charged and complex as education, leaders have an obligation to discuss the issues, not the people, to set the example of controlled, forward-focused, change-oriented conversations.”

García has a less charged, more clinical critique of public education called a “data dashboard” that she wants Congress to add to the education bill. The idea is to have school districts track inequities in funding and other resources in every public school, and thus expose racial and economic disparities.

At every stop along the tour García tried to sell the dashboard idea. “Come on in and find out what is going on in that school,” she would say. “Does this one have a school nurse and that one doesn’t? Or an AP program? How about guidance counselors, music and art, WiFi, updated textbooks, security guards and committed teachers?”

But not all of García’s supporters have bought into it. “It’s a nice idea, but what are you going to do with that kind of data if you don’t have any money in place to implement it?” Kilfoyle said. “The larger issue is the lack of funding going into our poorer black and brown communities. We’re not talking about that, and we need to.”

On the tour, there were also educators who appreciated the dashboard as an attempt to educate some of their harshest critics: lawmakers.

“I’d like to see our governor and legislators come in and teach 35 kids in the classroom who have no materials, no textbooks and never learn any respect or discipline,” said Georgia Association of Educators president Sid Chapman. “Come in and teach for a week without any stuff. Take a pause and they’ll chew you up.”

García talks to students in Savannah, Ga., one of 19 stops in four Southern states. (Kevin Lock/For The Washington Post)

The students in the classroom as García visits during her listening tour. (Kevin Lock/For The Washington Post)

Charleston’s midday light was blinding in the parking lot outside Emanuel’s white brick and stucco walls. Before they went inside, García gathered her small posse. “We just want to pay our respects and go quietly,” she said.

Church member Willi Glee, 75, escorted the group into the 124-year-old sanctuary, where he stood at the communion rail to recount the history of the oldest African Methodist Episcopal church in the South.

Then he turned to García and said, “Why are you all here?”

“We weren’t about to go through Charleston without paying our respects,” she told him. “But this tour is to talk about the opportunity gap in the needs of children, how important schools are for all children to succeed.”

Glee shook his head.

“We don’t need a dialogue,” he said. “Black people already know what the problem is: It’s the great privilege of being white in America. My children are less educated than me because I had better teachers and better community schools even way back when. And minority children are still the ones who go to the poorest schools. Our system is not meeting the needs of our students, so educators need to get on board and tell the truth.”

For the first time García appeared at a loss for words. All eyes were on her as she gathered her thoughts. “We haven’t dealt with institutional racism the way we’re going to deal with it this year. But the tragic events of June 17th have led us here. And now you have challenged us to get angry.”

Glee raised his palms in the air.

“So what are you going to do about it?”

Tears sprang to García’s eyes as she handed him an envelope with a donation from the NEA for Mother Emanuel’s parish. Then the two just looked at each other for a long moment. Finally, Glee said, “Thank you.”

After García and her staff left Mother Emanuel, there were two more hours of meetings and school visits. It was past 5 when they piled into their SUVs, driving to Columbia through a ferocious thunderstorm that rattled the vehicles’ windows. García had had almost nothing to eat all day. At the hotel three hours later, this 60-year-old wife, mother and grandmother looked exhausted. As she talked about the encounter at the church, tears began to flow.

“I cry a lot. I’m an emotional person. My communication team says, ‘Stop crying; it looks weak,’ ” she said, sniffling, blowing her nose. “But I cannot think about what happened in that church without crying. Anybody would shed a tear just thinking about that. But what really overwhelms me is what Mr. Willi put in my hands today, because he gave me a charge. He said, ‘You teachers are not teaching our children the truth.’ That’s an accusation. And I have to take that. I have to own it, and I have to say, What am I going to do about it?”

She said as a sixth-grade teacher whenever her 12-year-old students read something disturbing in the newspaper and decided, “it isn’t fair, this isn’t right,” she would challenge them to take the next step. “I would tell them every time that we need to do something about that. And you know what? There was not one time when they said, ‘No.’ The answer was always something: ‘We’ll write a letter,’ ‘We’ll call somebody.’

“So here, Mr. Willi has given me a charge, and I have to ask myself: What am I supposed to do about this? And the answer is not ‘nothing.’ The answer is you get out there and you find a way of convincing 3 million educators that they have to tell the truth. Not just about their own particular class and what it’s like to have 35 kids in a classroom and what testing means ... [but also] about injustices in the world, in our world, not in some foreign country, that led some person to walk into this church and take nine lives, that led him to think that someone would slap him on the back and congratulate him for that.

“And so, my God, that’s a big responsibility, and we are going to do something about it, whether it is banging on a governor’s door or doing research or talking to the press. Because equality is not equity. Equity means you get what you need. And kids who come to school hungry need a lot more. The tour showed us we are not there yet.”

Glen Finland is the author of “Next Stop: A Memoir of Family.” She lives in McLean. To comment on this story, e-mail or visit

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