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NEA Opposes Mandated State, Federal "Choice"

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After an emotional and confusing debate during the nea's annual convention here in July, delegates voted overwhelmingly to oppose mandatory choice measures on the grounds that they would compromise the union's commitment to "free, equitable, universal, and quality public education for every student."

The vote marked a surprise element in a four-day gathering that had been expected to focus almost entirely on the election of a new president and on a harmonious outpouring of affection for the union's departing leader, Mary Hatwood Futrell.

The resolution was approved despite a warning by Ms. Futrell that its tough, inflexible language "would set us back" in addressing the politically popular issue.

Its passage marked a bungled attempt by the organization's top leaders to convince delegates to approve a substitute amendment that would have given the union more flexibility in dealing with choice proposals.

In a separate business item, the delegates also asked their national office to develop stringent criteria for evaluating local choice programs, so that members can determine whether to support or oppose them on a case-by-case basis.

Union members expressed their continued support, however, for more traditional "alternative programs" designed for specific purposes. These include magnet schools and other options created as part of court-ordered desegregation plans.

The union's opposition to mandatory state or federal choice programs is directed primarily at the kinds of "open enrollment" options that now exist in Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska. Such programs enable parents to enroll their children in virtually any school district in the state.

'Don't Need' Choice

Many nea delegates described the programs as a back-door attempt to cut public-school funding and to restructure or consolidate districts.

Others portrayed choice as an attempt to "privatize" the public system. They predicted it would lead to an unequal distribution of resources and the resegregation of schools.

"We don't want, we don't need, any choice-option plans," said Ken Erenthal, a Connecticut delegate.

Added Wisconsin delegate Patrick McGrath: "Presently, there is not in existence in this country a choice plan which we would or could support."

'Very Disappointing'

The nea's actions were immediately criticized by the Bush Administration, which has been pushing for an expansion of choice at both the state and district levels.

Undersecretary of Education Ted Sanders described the union's stance as "very disappointing."

"Polls clearly show it's time for choice," he said. "Parents want it, students need it, but the nea still doesn't understand it."

Approximately 14 states--in addition to Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska--considered open-enrollment legislation this year or were awaiting recommendations from state boards or task forces charged with developing such proposals.

At least six more states examined less comprehensive plans that generally would restrict choice to specific groups of students.

The nea's opposition to mandatory choice measures does not prevent its state affiliates from backing such programs, but decreases the probability that they will do so.

The resolution also effectively bars the national organization from giving state affiliates any technical assistance or support to help them carry out or modify such proposals.

'More Negative' Stance

The union's strongly worded position on choice passed after the nea's executive committee and some of its most powerful state presidents failed to convince delegates to support a substitute amendment.

The alternative wording would have given the union more flexibility in dealing with choice proposals by creating criteria against which federal, state, and local programs could be measured, instead of rejecting certain kinds of programs out of hand.

During the debate, Ms. Futrell warned that the original resolution would be "more stringent, more narrow, and more negative" than the nea's position on choice to date.

But a number of delegates described the substitute amendment as too ''watered down" for their taste.

"Let's not play semantic games," said Rosanne K. Bacon, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. "If we're against choice, let's be against choice."

The amendment fell victim to political infighting between the union's executive committee and its powerful resolutions committee, which had drafted the original language.

Geiger: No 'About Face'

Delegates to the convention also elected Keith B. Geiger of Michigan to succeed Ms. Futrell as president of the 1.98-million-member union.

Mr. Geiger, who has served as the nea's vice president for the past six years, defeated John I. Wilson, a member of the executive committee.

Union members had predicted a close race. But Mr. Geiger won the election with 57.5 percent of the vote.

At a press conference following the election, Mr. Geiger told reporters not to expect a "big about-face" in the union as a result of his leadership.

Both he and incoming vice president, Robert F. Chase, are "strong supporters of where Mary Futrell has taken this organization," he said.

Mr. Geiger, who will assume the presidency Sept. 1, said his first initiative will be to identify two to four states that are ripe for passage of collective-bargaining laws and to mobilize the union to support such efforts.

Emotional Farewell

But while delegates gave a cordial welcome to their new president, their emotional responses were reserved for Ms. Futrell's departure.

In a keynote speech interrupted more than 60 times by applause, laughter, and standing ovations, the three-term president urged union members to "take risks" and embrace "massive, systemwide restructuring" of the nation's schools.

The 55-minute speech--one of the most pointed and inspirational of Ms. Futrell's career--took some parting shots at the education policies of President Bush and his predecessor. It also reiterated the union's call for increased federal funding of education, health, and social programs.

On the convention's last day, delegates stayed until 10 P.M. to present Ms. Futrell with personal tributes and gifts. More than 3,000 union members also left videotaped farewell messages for the nea leader.

The union's board of directors announced the creation of a "Mary Hatwood Futrell" scholarship fund that will provide financial aid to education students at Virginia State and George Washington universities, where she earned her degrees.

And they presented her with the organization's highest honor, the annual "Friend of Education" award.

'Learning Labs' Selected

One of the Ms. Futrell's last accomplishments was the creation of nea's "Learning Laboratories" initiative.

Under the program, local nea affiliates have agreed to help turn their school systems "upside down and inside out" to improve student learning, by establishing innovative programs and working to remove constraints that stand in the way of change.

During the convention, the union announced the first four districts selected to participate in the program: Memphis; Chaska, Minn.; Marshalltown, Iowa; and Westerly, R.I.

Each district will receive approximately $5,000 to help start its project. The union has committed $280,000 to the program over all for consultants and technical assistance.

The experimental projects are expected to last at least five years. Eventually the nea hopes to identify one learning lab in every state.

Staff Writer Ann Bradley contributed to this report.

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