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Q & A: Director Discusses N.E.A. Center on Public Education

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To help provide local and state affiliates with information on privatization and other trends that affect public education, the National Education Association in February established a clearinghouse for information on such issues.

Though still in its infancy, the Center for the Preservation of Public Education already has been credited with helping at least one urban affiliate block a private business's attempts to manage a magnet school in the city.

Staff Writer Joanna Richardson talked with Judy Behnke, the former executive director of the Nebraska State Education Association, who now is directing the N.E.A.'s clearinghouse.

Q.
What prompted the N.E.A. to set up the center?

A.
The fact is that the N.E.A. has for a long time been an advocate for public education. This isn't the first thing we've done, nor will it be the last.

But part of what we're doing is trying to coordinate and be the focus point for public education within the [organization].

We're in the process of continuing relationships and coalitions that we've had with other organizations. And we're developing some new ones with parental groups that are in support of public education.

We're really in the developmental stages of all that we're doing. At this point, our concentrated effort has been to assist our states and locals on the issues of privatization and right-wing activities--that kind of thing.

Q.
Do you think that public education is facing a crisis right now?

A.
I think there's always been an ongoing concern about the quality of public education, and that's appropriate. I believe that the schools do a terrific job, considering the constraints they have to deal with.

That isn't to say we can't do a better job. Part of what we're going to try to do is coordinate and develop how we can do better.

Q.
Are many states and locals requesting information from the center?

Frankly, I've been surprised at the number of calls we get for assistance. We get almost a disproportionate number of calls on vouchers.

I think we have some states that are like the N.E.A., planning ahead to try to deal with what they think the future's going to bring for them. Some are putting together study groups on these various topics so they have the most current information.

We have other states that probably haven't been hit as hard, or they probably haven't processed the issue as much.

But clearly I think it's a concern that everybody has.

Q.
Could you give me examples of states you are focusing on?

A.
Clearly, California is what we have to look to at this point in time. We've been fortunate that the public has been in support of public education and has rejected the voucher concept.

But I think California is clearly in the spotlight. And of course our organization is working 100 percent in support of [the California Teachers Association] and their activities out there.

Q.
I understand that the center worked with the N.E.A.'s Nashville affiliate to try to discourage the district from allowing Alternative Public Schools, a private business group, to manage a magnet school there. What was the extent of your involvement?

A.
We worked with the executive director out of Nashville. We suggested several sources of information that he could use, and we provided him a lot of information about other activities that are taking place within the country.

And then I believe the Tennessee Education Association also had their attorney work with the executive director as it relates to specific state laws. So it was a good coordinated effort.

Q.
Do you think we will see a lot more of these alternatives being proposed in the future?

A.
I think it's of interest to people. We go through these different trends.

I started teaching in 1962, and if we still had all of the trends that we started with through the years of public education, I can't imagine what we would turn out to be.

Trends come and they go. And vouchers clearly are something that are of interest to state legislators at this point in time. But of course, we only have the Milwaukee public school system, in a very small isolated area, where we do in fact have school vouchers.

While we think if people choose to send their children to private schools or religious schools, it's certainly their right, we don't think that public tax dollars should be spent for people who have made that choice.

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