Pennsylvania State Education Association’s next president isn’t a teacher

 Members of the Pennsylvania State Education Association stage a rally at the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., on March 4, 2001. (Kalim A. Bhatti/AP File Photo)

Members of the Pennsylvania State Education Association stage a rally at the state capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., on March 4, 2001. (Kalim A. Bhatti/AP File Photo)

This September, Pennsylvania’s teacher’s union will have a new leader. And she won’t be a former teacher.

Dolores McCracken took an unusual route to the top of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), and her story begins in Philadelphia.

The Mayfair native attended Catholic school–on her grandmother’s orders, she said — and after graduating took some classes at Philadelphia College of Textiles and Sciences (now Thomas Jefferson University). After high school, McCracken worked as to the chief of the criminal division at the U.S. Attorney’s office and later as a paralegal.

McCracken put her career on hold after having kids, assuming she’d at some point re-enter the legal profession. While she was waiting, McCracken became president of the Home and School Association at Churchville Elementary School in lower Bucks County, where her kids were enrolled.

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“My history has been to get involved,” she said.

Eager to work again, but wary of the long hours a paralegal job would entail, McCracken took a job as a teacher’s assistant at Churchville. She would remain in the position for nearly two decades.

“When you work in public education and you believe you’re making a difference, one year turns into two years,” McCracken said. “And the next thing you know you realize you’ve been there ten years and you’re not going to leave.”

As she grew into her classroom role, McCracken took an interest in union politics. She headed the union that represents paraprofessionals at the Council Rock School District and later landed on the PSEA board in a position reserved for non-teacher members of the 180,000-person union.

McCracken then ascended to treasurer and vice-president. With current PSEA President Jerry Oleksiak now taking a position as Governor Tom Wolf’s labor secretary, McCracken slides into the presidency. She’ll start on September 2.

“I was having the conversation in my head today, You really need to take the time to sit down and figure out how this all happened,” she said. “Because it was certainly never a plan.”

As for the direction she’ll take PSEA, McCracken said she’ll chart a familiar course.

“I don’t see PSEA taking a complete turn,” she said. I think that PSEA has been on the right path. We push for legislation and policy that’s favorable to public education. And I hope to continue that.”

And that will likely be McCracken’s primary role: advocate. PSEA is one of the state’s most visible education interest groups, and an active presence in Harrisburg. That presence only figures to widen with Oleksiak’s addition to the state cabinet.

McCracken said the biggest threat facing PSEA is “those who would, and have been seeking, to destroy unions and destroy public education.” McCracken also pledged to prioritize inter-district equity, noting that the resources available to students in Council Rock aren’t available in poorer districts. For reference, Council Rock spends a little more than $20,000 per child and has a median household income around $110,000.

While McCracken advocates, she’ll also be working on her college degree. McCracken continues to take courses at Thomas Jefferson Univesity (formerly known as Philadelphia University) part-time on the way to a bachelor’s degree many decades in the making.

None of this would have seemed remotely possible when McCracken joined the Home and School Association at Churchville Elementary. Her first task was to create a constitution and bylaws for the fledgling group.

Asked if she excelled in her role as Home and School president, McCracken paused a beat.

“I didn’t realize at the time, but I’m guessing yes,” she said.

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