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Atlanta: Hot time For The E Word

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ATLANTA--When Gov. Michael S. Dukakis promised Democrats here that he would "make teaching a valued and honored profession again,'' the line touched off a thunderously enthusiastic demonstration in the hall.

It was one of the most dramatic moments of the emotion-filled July 21 speech by the Massachusetts governor accepting his party's Presidential nomination. And it was a special high point for the 500 conventioneers--fully 10 percent of all the delegates and alternates--affiliated with the nation's teacher unions.

More broadly, the vocal reaction to Mr. Dukakis's promise--accompanied by a vow to "make our schools and universities and laboratories the finest in the world''--reflected the prominent role accorded education themes in the party's program and plans for the fall campaign.

The delegates here adopted a Democratic Party platform that calls for "significant'' increases in federal education spending, universal access to higher education, and equalization of financing among school districts.

And those who addressed the convention vowed to increase support for child care, higher teacher salaries, and federal education programs. They expounded on the link between education and competitiveness, and vigorously attacked the Reagan Administration's record, attempting to portray the Democrats as the party that cares about average Americans' access to high-quality schooling. (Excerpts on page 21.)

"I'm very pleased to see that virtually every speaker addressing this convention has talked about education,'' Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, said in an interview. "I've been actively involved since I could vote and this is the first time to my knowledge that education has had such a high priority.''

Delegate Power

The 1.9-million-member NEA, with 291 delegates and 80 alternates, sent the largest block of delegates from any single organization, a distinction it also claimed at the three previous Democratic conventions. The AFT, with 680,000 members, was represented by 140 delegates and 17 alternates.

More than 100 of the unions' delegates were pledged to Jesse L. Jackson, but no acrimony was apparent at union caucuses, reflecting the unusually harmonious tone of the convention as a whole.

Education-Plank Compromises

While Mr. Dukakis's nomination was assured, that harmony had been threatened by the Jackson camp's plans to push 13 platform amendments, including two dealing with education.

Most of those disputes, including those involving the education plank, were ultimately resolved with the addition of compromise language to the original platform document.

Jackson planks calling for higher taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals and for a pledge of "no first use'' of nuclear weapons were defeated on the convention floor, while a proposal to support a Palestinian homeland was debated and withdrawn by previous agreement.

The original document approved by the party's drafting committee--which included representatives from both teachers' unions--calls education "our highest priority.'' (Education planks on this page.)

It promises that the party would "expand'' preschool education for at-risk children; "invest in'' teacher training and provide scholarships to prospective teachers through a National Teacher Corps; "commit itself'' to the "principle that no one should be denied the opportunity to attend college for financial reasons''; provide "incentives and mechanisms for the equalization of financing among local school districts within each state''; "reverse cuts'' in compensatory-education programs, and "expand support'' for other education programs.

Mr. Jackson's representatives proposed additional language promising to "fully fund'' early-intervention programs such as Head Start and the Women, Infants, and Children nutrition effort to serve all eligible children, and to double spending on education from 2 cents of every federal dollar to 4 cents.

The compromise language pledges less-specific increases in funding for early-intervention and education programs.

Lobbied for Compromise

The two teachers' unions took different approaches to the platform issue in Atlanta.

While the NEA had supported the party leaders' plan to draft a platform heavy with concepts and light on specific promises, Ms. Futrell urged union delegates to support a compromise between the Dukakis and Jackson positions, adding: "We want to be on the side of education in this vote.''

NEA spokesmen said union representatives lobbied the Dukakis camp to accept compromise language, and one spokesman said that "if push comes to shove, we'll support the minority plank'' proposed by Mr. Jackson.

'Dance With Who Brung You'

In contrast, AFT delegates were told to "dance with whoever brung you,'' in the words of a union spokesman, who said the organization's "whip system'' for communicating with delegates on the floor was designed mainly to keep them from being confused about how their candidates wanted them to vote.

Rachelle Horowitz, the AFTs political director, called the rival union's position "rambunctious.''

"We are not here to say, 'This is the AFT position, and vote this way even if your candidate tells you to vote the other way,''' Albert Shanker, the union's president, told delegates. "Although you are not legally bound on the issues the way you are bound to vote for the candidate, you are morally bound.''

Mr. Shanker supported the party leadership's decision to keep specific promises to particular constituencies out of the platform--promises that many observers think contributed mightily to recent Democratic losses--and argued that adoption of an education-funding plank would lead to similar proposals from other groups.

"It allows the Republicans to say, 'Look what they promised to their groups,''' Mr. Shanker said. "You add it up and add it to the deficit and you come up with a loser.''

Besides, he told reporters later in the week, the federal government's direct contribution to education, while important, is small. "The best way for the federal government to help education is to take its proper role in areas like housing, transportation, and welfare,'' where federal cuts have forced states to "shift money away from education,'' Mr. Shanker said.

Partisan Contingent

While both teachers' unions will survey members on their Presidential preferences after this month's Republican convention, there is little doubt that the two groups will back Mr. Dukakis in the general election. A majority of the unions' members are Democrats, and their leaders made no attempt to disguise their partisanship here.

"NEA is, will be, and must be a bipartisan organization,'' Ms. Futrell told delegates, "because education is, will be, and must be a bipartisan issue.'' But the union leader termed herself a "fervent Democrat'' and urged the delegates to "close ranks and fight for the Democratic ticket as established at this convention.''

"At the end of that rainbow,'' she said, "we're going to have a pro-education president.''

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