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Published in Print: July 23, 2004, as Democrats Stress Issue Of Teacher Quality

Democrats Stress Issue Of Teacher Quality

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Election 2004 Democrats gathering for their national convention are expected to approve a party platform that seeks to raise spending on schools and colleges, create rigorous tests for new teachers, offer rewards for teachers who excel, and improve high school graduation rates.

Those and other proposals in the draft platform echo the education agenda of the party’s presumptive standard-bearer, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

"We believe in an America where every child comes to school ready to learn," the draft declares in the ringing phrases characteristic of such manifestoes. "Where every student is held to high standards and every school has the resources and responsibility to meet those standards. Where every classroom has a great teacher, and every student gets enough personal attention to foster a talent or overcome a difficulty."

The quadrennial convention, this time held in Boston, brings together 4,353 delegates and 611 alternates. Delegates will vote on the party platform, listen to an almost endless stream of speeches, and ultimately nominate Mr. Kerry as the Democratic challenger to President Bush.

The convention’s theme is "Stronger at Home, Respected in the World."

Both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, which have endorsed Mr. Kerry’s candidacy, will have a significant presence at the Boston gathering.

The NEA is expected to have about 270 delegates and alternates from 49 states. The AFT is expected to have 125 delegates and alternates from 28 states, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the District of Columbia.

The teachers’ unions were also planning activities to rally their participants. On July 25, the day before the formal start of the convention, the NEA is to hold a luncheon for the Massachusetts congressional delegation.

On July 28, the two unions are to jointly sponsor a "Boston Tea Party" at the New England Aquarium to recognize Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico for his commitment to children and public education. Mr. Richardson is also the chairman of the national convention.

Incentives for Teachers

The list of delegates includes one especially familiar face in the education world: Richard W. Riley, the secretary of education during both of President Clinton’s terms. He’s heading the delegation from South Carolina, where he earlier served as governor.

Delegates are scheduled to vote July 27 on the party platform, which covers a wide range of issues beyond education, from foreign policy and health care to the environment and homeland security. As is customary with such platforms, much of the presumptive nominee’s plans and ideas are reflected in the document, which is described in the preamble as “our vision as Democrats."

The draft preamble makes a brief mention of education. It says, "We have a plan to help our people build strong, healthy families: securing health care, offering world-class education, and ensuring clean air and water."

The platform was first approved July 10 by a committee that met in Hollywood, Fla. Susan Castillo, Oregon’s state superintendent of education, was among the panel’s nine vice- chairs. Diane Shust, the director of government relations for the NEA, was a committee member.

About three pages of the draft platform deal exclusively with education.

The document calls for, in language similar to Mr. Kerry’s, plans to attract and keep high-quality teachers. With nods to such ideas as differential pay for some teachers and rewards for outstanding performance, the draft language treads on traditionally sensitive terrain for many teachers.

"We must raise pay for teachers, especially in the schools and subjects where great teachers are in the shortest supply," it says. "We must improve mentoring, professional development, and new technology training for teachers, instead of leaving them to sink or swim."

Reflecting Mr. Kerry’s intent to ask more of teachers and to offer them new incentives, the draft also says: "[W]e must create rigorous new tests for new teachers. We need new rewards for teachers who go the extra mile and excel in helping children learn."

It adds that teachers deserve due-process protection against arbitrary dismissal, but that "we must have fast, fair procedures for improving or removing teachers who do not perform on the job."

Cautious on ‘No Child’

In its language on the No Child Left Behind Act, the document calls for "fully funding" programs under the law, as Mr. Kerry has suggested.

It makes no explicit mention, however, of modifying the law, which has come under increasing attack from teachers’ unions, state officials, and others.

Mr. Kerry has said he would make changes to the law’s centerpiece accountability language on measuring "adequate yearly progress" in student performance.

The issue is tricky politically, because leading Democrats, including Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, helped write the legislation, and Sen. Kerry and most other congressional Democrats voted for it.

The platform language is somewhat vague on the matter.

"We will use testing to advance real learning, not undermine it, by developing high-quality assessments that measure the complex skills students need to develop," the draft document says. "We will make sure that federal law operates with high standards and common sense, not just bureaucratic rigidity."

Vol. 23, Issue 43, Pages 21-22

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