July 25, 1983 12:00 PM

Mary Futrell gave the first major speech of her life in Richmond, Va. 11 years ago, to an audience of 2,500 fellow teachers. “I remember looking out at a sea of white folk,” she recalls, “and being so nervous that my voice trembled and my hands shook. When I finished, people were laughing because, with my papers shaking so much, no one could understand how I could read the speech.” These days nobody laughs at Futrell, 43, the newly elected president of the National Education Association and one of the most powerful black women in America. “People now say that when I give a speech it heartens them to see how confident I am. And the reason is,” she explains, “I refuse to give up.” Indeed, the combative Futrell returns fire with fire, even when dueling with the NEA’s most exalted critic, Ronald Reagan.

It’s not an easy time to be an educator, much less the leader of the nation’s largest teacher union, with 1.7 million members and a $77 million operating budget. Four blue-ribbon commissions have recently published studies decrying the drift of American education into mediocrity; over the past 15 years the scores of Scholastic Aptitute Tests for the college-bound have declined from a national average of 958 to 893. President Reagan has responded by calling for a “merit pay” system to reward high-quality teachers. Futrell rejects that proposal, arguing that it would cause dissension and bias. “What would happen if an administrator didn’t like you because you had blue eyes or were considered a political troublemaker?” she asks. Still, she concedes that 10 percent of the nation’s teachers are weak: “They sift through in every profession,” she says cuttingly, “even at the White House.”

The President sharpened his attack on the NEA two weeks ago, choosing as his forum the convention of a rival and smaller (by one million members) union, the American Federation of Teachers. He accused the NEA of “brainwashing American schoolchildren” through its recommendation of two new curriculums: In one, citing the “entrenched racism in our society,” the Ku Klux Klan is called “the tip of the iceberg”; in the other, titled “Choices,” students are taught that there are options for resolving conflicts between nations short of nuclear war.

Not the least bit cowed by the President of the United States, Futrell says that Reagan has “treated education like a doormat.” She gives him failing grades for his determination to dismantle the Department of Education, supporting tuition tax credits, and proposing a $2 billion cut in the federal education budget for 1984. Futrell believes that the President’s overall strategy is not only to divide and conquer the education Establishment, but to alienate the NEA from the public itself. The motive? Pure politics, says Futrell. In 1982 NEA members contributed $1.5 million to political candidates—most of them Democrats.

Futrell’s openly partisan politics are generating opposition even within the profession. “She’s too militant for a lot of teachers,” complains Edward Remington, spokesman for Concerned Educators Against Forced Unionism, a conservative coalition with 50,000 members. “She’s more concerned with political power than educational quality.” Still, Futrell will lead the NEA caucus at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions next year with just one consideration in mind: “I’ll support the person [for President] who will do the most for education. And,” she adds, “who has the best chance of winning.”

The grit in Mary Hatwood Futrell developed during her impoverished childhood in Lynchburg, Va. When her father died from kidney disease in 1945, it took the family eight years to pay off the hospital bills, even though her mother worked at three different jobs. “She’d be gone before we’d wake up for breakfast,” remembers Futrell, “and still not come home by dark.” The way out of poverty, the daughter discovered, was through education. “People and books were all she ever cared about,” says her mother, Josephine Austin, who raised Mary and three other girls. “She could ask nine million questions in three minutes flat.” Thanks to state grants and the largesse of a wealthy Lynchburg family, she studied business education at Virginia State College. She had been teaching business courses for two years in 1965 when her Alexandria, Va. school was desegregated. With fellow teachers, Futrell was able to defuse the highly charged racial situation by bringing angry students and parents together in rap sessions.

Politicized, Futrell became active in the Virginia Education Association in 1967 and was elected to the NEA’s board of directors 11 years later. When not at her office near the White House or on the road for the NEA, Mary relaxes with her husband, Donald Futrell, 39, an elementary school gym teacher and high school track and football coach in Alexandria. With Mary away so much in her new position, Donald has assumed many household chores and cheerfully refers to himself as a “househusband.” He is unfazed by Mary’s $71,000 annual salary—which is more than double his.

Futrell was renowned as a schoolteacher for blending compassion with discipline. The firmness she showed at the blackboard now guides her dealings with President Reagan and other politicos. “If we sit back and do nothing, they will push us around,” she says. “Teachers are no longer going to be the passive little old ladies who accept what’s handed to them.”

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