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Contrite Kerry

When Reg Weaver announced to the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly that Sen. John Kerry would indeed address the delegates via satellite, the response was somewhat muted.

Through more approving cheers, he admitted that he had expressed privately to Mr. Kerry the NEA’s grave disappointment at the last-minute cancellation of his scheduled personal appearance at the convention on July 6. “I told him everything on the phone that I couldn’t say out here in public,” said Mr. Weaver, who told the crowd that the presumptive Democratic nominee for president was extremely apologetic.

Voices from the NEA's annual meeting:

NEA President Reg Weaver's introduction of Sen. Clinton. (0:35; MP3 format)

Excerpts from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's address at the NEA's annual meeting. (4:26; MP3 format)

Gloria Buck, 30-year special education teacher, Lapeer Community Schools, Michigan. (1:23; MP3 format)

Coy D. Marquardt, 7th-grade teacher, Iowa City, Iowa, a first-time delegate. (1:15; MP3 format)

Nancy Ruth White, Redlands, Calif., retired 35-year educator and veteran delegate. (1:55; MP3 format)

Barbara Wilson, school librarian, Mineral, Virginia, 21-year NEA member. (1:40; MP3 format)

Sens. Kerry and John Edwards, who later appeared via satellite as promised to address the assembly, publicly apologized for bowing out as well. In his speech, Sen. Kerry thanked the members who “do the hardest work in America—teaching our children.” The Massachusetts politician promised to fix and finance the No Child Left Behind Act and criticized President Bush for his failure to support educators. The issue of education, he said, was very personal to him, because his sister was a middle school teacher, and he told the delegates that they deserved a president who didn’t make them scapegoats.

Mr. Edwards furthered those thoughts and also praised teachers. “I’m a living, breathing product of the public schools, and I’m proud of it,” said the senator from North Carolina.

Both speeches received mild applause, although Mr. Weaver managed to energize the crowd by endorsing the “J and J Team.”

Still, the disappointment hanging in the air was obvious.

“I understand the gravity of his decision,” said Roger Kavigan of Tustin, Calif., referring to Mr. Kerry’s selection of Sen. Edwards on the day he was supposed to address the Representative Assembly. “But he didn’t have to make it [in Pittsburgh].”

Other delegates agreed, arguing that Sen. Kerry should have announced his vice presidential pick at the NEA conference, particularly since Sen. Edwards was already in the nation’s capital. He was flown to Pittsburgh for the announcement, much to the chagrin of some delegates.

“What better forum than to come and have 10,000 supporters hear it for the first time? It would have been fantastic,” said Mr. Kavigan, who said he hated the fact that teachers are always considered an afterthought.

Sen. Kerry’s no-show, however, failed to surprise some delegates, who said they knew that the schedule would change once they heard he had chosen a running mate. Some suggested that the decision may have been timed and that just maybe he never meant to show up since the NEA had already endorsed him.

“I’m not as devastated as some delegates,” said Ed K. Rhoads, a physical education teacher from Springfield, Ohio, who had been a supporter of Gen. Wesley K. Clark. Mr. Kerry, he said, was more of a second choice.

Angel Tilford, also from Springfield, said that the no-show didn’t particularly upset her either and that a lot of her colleagues were just glad that they didn’t have to go through all the security precautions that would have been required had Sen. Kerry come in person.

Other delegates expressed indifference. Many said that they were unconcerned by the bailout and that as long as Sen. Kerry was a friend to education in the White House, he would have their support.

A few defended the senator.

“I don’t really think he shunned us,” said Susan J. Jones of Fairbanks, Alaska. “Sometimes commitments get in the way, you have to reshuffle things, and it’s not always convenient for everybody.”

“You’ve got to keep it in perspective,” agreed Philip Blasé, a teacher from San Diego. “He is running for the nation’s highest office.”

But Bush supporters in the audience said the move was a political faux pas.

“I thought it was, strategically, a huge mistake,” said Barbara Bushue, a teacher from Beloit, Wis., and a Bush supporter. “Even the Democrats surrounding me felt blown off. I thought it was Bush’s lucky day.”

Sen. Kerry has definitely irritated a few people, added Diane Meier, also from Wisconsin. “Those on the fence may start looking elsewhere,” she said.

Phone calls to Mr. Kerry’s campaign were not returned.

Higher Ed.

Among the many business items it dealt with this week, the Representative Assembly went on record opposing the use of dropout and completion rates in accountability measures. But that resolution is directed at higher education, not the federal No Child Left Behind Act, according to Nancy O’Brien, a lobbyist for the NEA.

Union members adopted the legislative amendment to oppose the use of dropout rates as the sole means of qualifying higher education institutions, including community colleges, for public financial support.

“This is not a new question,” said Ms. O’Brien, who observed that the timing of the amendment coincides with the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act now before Congress.

Ms. O’Brien conceded that the idea is somewhat based on the NEA’s prior experience with the No Child Left Behind law at the K-12 level, but said the intent was to address the proper use of accountability measures for universities.

For example, students attend community colleges, she said, for various reasons. Some are there for degrees, but many are just supplementing their job skills. Often, students will sign up for a course and later drop out because they’ve been “hired away” by a company that offers to train them in-house. Those students, she argued, should not be considered dropouts, but educational success stories and therefore, should not be counted against an institution.

“Our members wanted to make a statement that some [accountability] measures [used] in K-12 would not work at the college level,” Ms. O’Brien said.

Party Animals

What’s the best way to get people talking about education? You throw a party, of course. At least, that’s what the NEA is encouraging thousands of its members to do. During the conference, NEA staff members challenged delegates to volunteer and organize house parties for the National Mobilization for Great Public Schools on Sept. 22. The gatherings are intended to provide education policymakers, teachers, parents, and the general public an opportunity to learn about and discuss education issues.

“This is a chance for people to play an active role in education and in the dialogue on education,” said Dan Kaufman, a spokesman for the NEA. The parties are nonpartisan events, and Mr. Kaufman noted that the union was not providing any money for them. Each delegate who volunteers to host a party will be given a small guidebook and video outlining possible topics of conversation, suggestions on how to host the party, and ways to open the initial discussions, but the ultimate design and setting will be up to the individual members.

Some delegates, such as Eric Senter from Raleigh, N.C., said they intended to host several large gatherings at local restaurants that would include the news media, local politicians, and school board members. A few delegates said their parties would be by invitation only and would exclude the general public. Others envisioned smaller, more intimate gatherings at their homes that would be open to everyone.

Barbara Wilson, a librarian from Mineral, Va., said she hoped to make people feel at home and planned to serve tea, cookies, and cake.

“My home is relatively small,” said Ms. Wilson, “but anyone who can fit through the door is welcome.”

Head of the Class

Although this year’s NEA conference was not filled with as many heated discussions as last year’s, most delegates said they would give Reg Weaver and the conference organizers an A-plus.

“It’s very tame compared to previous years,” said Debbie Baker, a teacher from Springfield, Ohio. “Not slow moving as far as belabored, but no heated, controversial issues. I think the NEA has just stayed on top of the issues.”

Other delegates attributed the easy atmosphere to a lack of young teachers in attendance and said that because many delegates were more experienced, a lot of issues were easily resolved. But others argued that there were plenty of young teachers and first-time delegates on the floor and that the atmosphere of the conference changed from year to year depending on the city, the number and diversity of the delegates, and the political context in which it was held.

“We got quite a bit of business accomplished,” said Susan J. Baker, an elementary teacher from Fairbanks, Alaska.

A few delegates, however, were concerned that the conference strayed at times.

“A lot of people do too much talking,” said first-timer Philip Blasé of San Diego who felt that too many delegates wasted time promoting their states. “I’d like it if people would just say what they have to say and stick to the issues.”

Many delegates pointed out that some members were trying to tackle societal issues over which schools have very little control. Taking on issues that don’t directly affect teachers and students, according to some, dilutes the energy and focus of the conference.

Of course, if you want an impartial opinion, just ask Ciera Richardson, a five-year veteran attendee.

“It’s boring,” said Ciera, 8, who wouldn’t commit to the suggestions from surrounding delegates that she become a teacher when she grows up. But she is sure of one thing.

“I want to be president,” she said.

Of the NEA?

“No, of the United States,” she replied with a smile.

Motion to Marry

Bob Kaplan, 49, came to this year’s conference to address a serious issue. Right from the start, he intended to put a motion before the NEA membership and was determined to see it pass.

Standing before a local caucus of 600 members, the assistant principal from Westmont, Ill., requested a moment of personal privilege, then turned to Rainy Crichon, a fellow delegate, and made his motion. “Still being of sound mind, though not so much the body, I propose that I marry Rainy. I need a second.”

He got one. A stunned Ms. Crichon, 39, asked the delegation to second the motion, and they approved it unanimously. And so, apparently, did Reg Weaver, who pointed out the couple before the entire Representative Assembly later that day. To the roar of the crowd, Ms. Crichon stood, smiling broadly, and raised her hand to display a sparkling diamond ring.

Mr. Kaplan, who smiled and waved off cameras, wasn’t surprised by Mr. Weaver’s announcement and admitted that he had considered proposing on the main assembly floor, but decided not to because he thought it might be viewed as inappropriate.

“The Illinois membership is like family to me,” he said in an interview, noting that he felt more comfortable proposing at the local caucus because he knew most, if not all, the members. “I do things like that to keep the caucus lively.”

“He told me he would do it in a big way,” said Ms. Crichon, a teacher at Westmont High School, in the same town where her fiancé works.“I haven’t stopped smiling yet today.”

The couple, who met at the 2000 NEA conference in Chicago, have not set a wedding date.

“Talks are ongoing,” they joked. “Negotiations are in progress.”

—Marianne D. Hurst

Online Editor Craig Stone contributed to this report.

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  • Listen to Sen. Clinton's entire speech before the NEA's annual meeting (note: this file is large and will take some time to download). (17:48; MP3 format)
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