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Published in Print: May 5, 2004, as NEA Sets Up Entity to Advocate Changes in Education Law

NEA Sets Up Entity to Advocate Changes in Education Law

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The nation’s largest teachers’ union has launched a new advocacy organization focused on changing the No Child Left Behind Act and getting more funding for it.

Set up as a "social-welfare organization," Communities for Quality Education may lobby and, on a limited basis, take part in political campaigns.

That gives the group a wider scope for advocacy than the National Education Association itself can have under the federal tax code.

Mike Casey, a public relations consultant to the new group, said the sweeping federal law is causing grave harm. "Teachers say the way the law is implemented now is taking the joy out of teaching and learning in America’s classrooms, and we want to change that."

Leaders of the 2.7 million-member NEA have asked each of its 50 state affiliates to contribute $1 per member from either dues money or their political-action funds to get the group off the ground, according to internal documents.

The new Washington based organization opens its doors as Democrats, Republicans, and politically active groups of every stripe scramble to fill political-spending gaps spawned by the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law.

Both corporations and unions, for instance, can no longer donate so-called "soft money," which went to political parties to try to influence voters during campaigns without directly supporting particular candidates.

The NEA itself has come under increased scrutiny by the Internal Revenue Service, which is auditing the union, and the U.S. Department of Labor, which is investigating the union’s reporting of its political activities.

‘Something Different’

The new group is headed by John Hein, who until recently was the chief lobbyist for the California Teachers Association. Its initial board is made up of Anne Davis, the president of the Illinois Education Association, as chairwoman; and Robert Bonazzi, the executive director of the New Jersey Education Association, and Maurice Joseph, the NEA’s deputy general counsel, as members.

Despite the union ties, Mr. Casey, the spokesman, said: "We’re focusing on doing something different here that’s not being done now by an array of education organizations. We want to get a dialogue going on among people who often don’t see eye to eye."

He said that while the group’s immediate aim was to "fix and fund" the law that the NEA has both tepidly supported and denounced, in the long run, Communities for Quality Education wants to generate a "discussion about the direction of public education" and involve busy parents, teachers, and policymakers.

Mr. Casey said the organization would be active on the local, state, and national levels, but that plans were still being laid.

Some union observers and education advocates did not immediately welcome the new organization.

Mike Antonucci, a teachers’ union critic who carried news of the group’s existence in his independent online newsletter, said Communities for Quality Education would have credibility in its mission "only to the extent that this organization can distance itself from NEA’s own agenda."

Ross Weiner, the policy director of the Washington- based Education Trust, which influenced the federal law and advocates higher educational standards for poor and minority children, said he did not have much confidence in the new group because of its close connection with the NEA.

"The NEA has been the primary source of misinformation regarding the law," he charged. "I worry there’s more of that in store for us."

Vol. 23, Issue 34, Page 14

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