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Politics, N.E.A. Style

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WASHINGTON--As one would expect during an election year, the National Education Association's Representative Assembly meeting here was peppered with fiery political rhetoric, much of it aimed at the Bush Administration.

In his keynote speech to the 8,660 delegates, Keith B. Geiger, the N.E.A.'s president, gave President Bush an F for his failure to make children a national priority.

As the convention opened early last month, Mr. Geiger also predicted that the association would endorse Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, the Democrats' Presidential standard-bearer, by a wide margin.

The delegates were not scheduled to vote on the endorsement until the last day of the convention. But Mr. Geiger asked the union's political-action committee to change the voting date to July 6 so that Mr. Clinton could personally receive the N.E.A. endorsement.

The Arkansas Governor was slated to field questions from the delegates in an informal, town-meeting-style session on July 7.

The union's politicos turned Mr. Geiger down, though, arguing that members should not be asked to make an endorsement until they had had a chance to question Mr. Clinton and evaluate his remarks.

But the jockeying did not matter much. The assembly voted overwhelmingly to back Mr. Clinton on July 8.

Mr. Geiger's announced backing of Mr. Clinton drew a sharp rebuke from Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander.

At the request of the Bush campaign, a spokesman confirmed, the usually low-key Cabinet member unloaded both barrels at the teachers' union, charging that the N.E.A. was backing Mr. Clinton because "they will support the candidate who promises them the most dollars for the least amount of change.''

"The N.E.A. only likes people it can control,'' Mr. Alexander asserted.

He also charged that Mr. Clinton had passed up an opportunity to speak to the teachers about "radical change,'' instead talking about the union's "agenda.''

The combative remarks were a departure from the normally cordial relationship that the union has enjoyed with Mr. Alexander, Mr. Geiger noted.

The comments also provoked Mr. Geiger to stick up for his association and for Mr. Clinton, whose relaxed manner and knowledge of educational issues appeared to delight the delegates.

"Is the President perhaps afraid that he simply does not have the command of the issues that Bill Clinton displayed?'' Mr. Geiger wondered. "Unlike George Bush, Bill Clinton has done his homework.''

One of the questions asked of Mr. Clinton by the delegates was whether he would consider appointing a "public-school educator'' to be Secretary of Education.

"You're the first person who ever asked me,'' he responded. "I don't want to promise that, since I never thought about it.''

As the candidate answered the question, the Representative Assembly broke into chants of "Mary, Mary, Mary.'''

It was a reminder of just how popular Mary Hatwood Futrell, the immediate past president of the association, remains. Ms. Futrell had addressed the delegates earlier the same day about the planned merger of the two international teachers' unions.

She is the president of the World Confederation of Organizations of the Teaching Profession, while Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, is the head of the International Federation of Free Trade Unions.

While Ms. Futrell was careful to say that combining the forces of the two international bodies was a separate issue from merging the N.E.A. and the A.F.T., she went on to speak of the need for "unity'' among teachers.

The N.E.A. released a new report on the status of the American public-school teacher during the 1990-91 school year. The association surveys teachers every five years.

The results confirmed widely noted trends.

The number of minority teachers, for example, is out of balance with the number of minority students. In 1991, 38.7 percent of students--but only 13.2 percent of all teachers--were members of minority groups.

The ratio of male to female teachers has been declining since 1971, the study found. The percentage of elementary-school teachers who are men is at its lowest point since 1966, at 12 percent.

The average age of public-school teachers is 42, with 15 years of experience the norm.

Teachers reported working 36.2 hours a week at school, with an additional 10.3 hours a week spent on grading papers, bus duty, and other school-related activities.

Standardized testing proved almost as unpopular at the convention as the Bush Administration. The delegates adopted a resolution flatly opposing standardized testing mandated by a state or national authority. The resolution also condemned using such tests to compare schools and school districts to one another.

Mr. Geiger said, however, that the resolution would not affect his work with coalitions that are trying to develop better measures of student achievement.

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