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Regarding criticism of the current educational system, Van Roekel said: “We need to change that system. I don’t want to tinker with that system. I don’t want to fix it. I want to change it.”

“One, you couldn’t swear. And two, you couldn’t call anyone a name. Because I said there is no discrimination in the world that I’ve ever seen that didn’t start with a name that somehow labeled. So we just don’t do that,” said Dennis Van Roekel in a recent hour-long interview in Nashville with EthicsDaily.com.

Asked by students what would be the punishment if they broke the rules, he replied, “Well, there isn’t a punishment because you can’t do it.”

When students pressed for the punishment, he repeated, “There’s no punishment necessary because you can’t do it.”

Van Roekel said that of all the rules he had to enforce in high school “the two that I had the least trouble with were those two. Isn’t that amazing? No punishment. It’s just not acceptable.”

NEA’s president offered similar clarity on a number of topics.

Questioned about what he would like to see churches do to help public schools, Van Roekel answered, “I would like them to stop preaching from the pulpit that they are bad.”

Then he added, “I would like us to figure out new ways for us to be partners.”

From his perspective, communities of faith and schools got caught in the crossfire over issues like prayer and religious holidays. He said the two institutions should not have “an adversarial relationship” and should find common ground, expressing a traditional commitment to the separation of church and state.

Van Roekel did say that he did not support the teaching of creationism in public schools: “I believe it’s a religious doctrine and we shouldn’t be teaching that Evolution is a theory of science.”

Recalling meetings between public educators and faith leaders in Tennessee in February 2007 and Oklahoma in March 2008, he said he hoped under his tenure that more such conferences would be held.

Speaking about his friendship with Reg Weaver, his predecessor, he said the NEA would have no change in direction. He reaffirmed his commitment to NEA’s mission statement: “Great Public Schools for Every Child.”

A native of Iowa, Van Roekel begins his tenure as the head of the 3.2 million-member teachers union well-known among the membership and well-acquainted with the organization, having served two terms as NEA vice president.

Regarding criticism of the current educational system, Van Roekel said: “We need to change that system. I don’t want to tinker with that system. I don’t want to fix it. I want to change it.”

He said: “We designed this system and the system is losing about 30 percent of the students overall before they graduate from high school. In urban areas, in high-poverty areas, we are losing 50 percent of African-American and Hispanic students before they ever graduate from high school.”

“We don’t need to point a finger It is a system,” he clarified. “A system delivers what it was designed to do. And when you are not getting the results you want you have to look at the system.”

“In the 21st century,” said Van Roekel, “we can’t have a system that only educates a certain percentage well It really does have to educate all students well.”

Acknowledging how tough it is going to be to change the educational system, Van Roekel underscored the need for collaborative efforts by many different shareholders ”the teacher’s union, parents, students, state and federal governments. Another entity that Van Roekel believes should be at the table is the faith community.

Van Roekel’s irenic spirit, passion for education and recognition of the need to find common ground give him the necessary tools for changing the educational system, a goal to which leaders of faith ought to contribute.

Van Roekel and the NEA merit the support of goodwill Baptists. After all, we, Baptists, should be willing to work toward great public schools for every one of God’s children.

Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.

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