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NEA President Goes Beyond Party Line in 'No Child' Critique

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The pointed critique of the No Child Left Behind Act delivered by a teachers' union leader to the Democratic National Convention July 27 was a sharp contrast to the vague language about the law in the party's platform, approved about two hours earlier.

"[The No Child Left Behind law] is a one-size-fits-all federal mandate that sets the wrong priorities—too much paperwork, bureaucracy, and testing," Reg Weaver, the president of the National Education Association, told nearly 5,000 delegates and alternates at the FleetCenter in Boston. "Our schools are becoming testing factories, not centers of learning and progress."

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Audio Extras:

  • Education Week editor Mark Walsh reports on Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's appearance at an early childhood education forum. (2:27) Windows Media format | MP3 format

A signature domestic accomplishment of President Bush, the law was co-written by leading Democrats in Congress. It won overwhelming support in both chambers, including from Sens. John Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, who this week are to be nominated the Democratic party's nominees for president and vice president, respectively.

The party's platform, however, does not explicitly call for changing the federal law, which is a priority for the NEA.

In what appears to be the closest language to addressing questions about the law, the platform states, "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. We will make sure that federal law operates with high standards and common sense, not just bureaucratic rigidity."

In an interview with Education Week two days before his July 27 speech, Mr. Weaver said he wasn't troubled that the platform does not explicitly call for rewriting the federal law.

"You know what? I could care less what the platform says on that," he said. "You know why? Because I have talked to legislators on both sides of the aisle, and they recognize that this law needs to be fixed and funded. ... Regardless of what the platform says, these congresspeople are going to do something about it."

Indeed, in his speech to the convention, he made the same point about Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts.

"John Kerry will lead the fight to fix and fund this law," he said. "He knows that teaching children to test well is not the same as teaching them to read, compute, and think well."

He added, "From America's teachers and education professionals, John Kerry gets an 'A.'"

Mr. Kerry has said during his campaign that he wants to make changes to the law's core language on a provision known as "adequate yearly progress."

Edward J. McElroy, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, addressed the convention the day before his NEA counterpart.

While his union has recently begun to openly call for changes to the No Child Left Behind Act, he did not specifically make that point in his remarks.

"We must make sure that policies affecting schools and children are not enacted without first listening to those closest to the classroom," Mr. McElroy said. "Teachers and other educators know that John Kerry and John Edwards are listening."

He added, "In John Kerry and John Edwards, we have a team who know that education really is a top priority."

Going the Extra Mile

In his interview with Education Week, Mr. Weaver said that overall, the NEA is generally supportive of the platform's three pages dedicated to education.

"I don't know of any written document that you can be 100 percent satisfied with," he said. "But ... we have had people that helped to form and participate in the development of that. And so, I haven't heard anything from them that causes us to have grave concerns, so we're pretty much OK with it."

The platform certainly touches on many themes that are important to the union, such as high-quality early learning opportunities, smaller classes, and more after-school support.

It also criticizes President Bush on funding for the No Child Left Behind Act, charging that he has sought billions less for the law then promised. The Bush administration points out that K-12 aid to schools has grown dramatically during the past three and a half years.

The platform, which echoes much of Sen. Kerry's education agenda, does delve into a few education matters that have traditionally caused some concern among teachers and union officials, such as differential compensation and teacher testing.

While the platform calls for added supports and better pay for teachers, it also calls for teacher testing, higher pay—"especially in the schools and subjects where great teachers are in the shortest supply"—and for "new rewards for teachers who go the extra mile and excel in helping children learn."

Addressing the plan to reward teachers for improving student achievement, Mr. Weaver said, "Don't get sucked into thinking that reward is only monetary. See, rewards come in different fashions. ... It could be additional prep time, it could be some kind of professional development activity."

The Other Convention

Mr. Weaver said he plans to use the week to "mobilize, organize, and galvanize" his members here in Boston, "so that they will give me five. Give me five registered voters, give me five days between now and Nov. 2 to go out and work. Give me five volunteers to get out and work during the campaign, and then give me five new members."

His union endorsed Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign earlier this month.

Mr. Weaver recognizes that education isn't getting as much attention as it did in the presidential election four years ago, but he argues that there are some legitimate reasons for this.

"You didn't have terrorism," he said. "You didn't have Iraq. You didn't have health care, and you didn't have the economy. You've got four pieces there that people are really looking at."

Ultimately, though Mr. Weaver believes education will be on the minds of voters. "It's going to factor in there, absolutely."

The NEA will also play a role in the Republican Convention next month in New York City, though it will likely have far fewer than the roughly 275 delegates and alternates at the Democratic convention.

"I'm going to the Republican convention as well," he said. "Whatever we do for our delegates here, we're going to do for our delegates on the Republican side." He estimated that the NEA membership is about one-third Democrats, one-third Republicans, and one-third Independents.

Though the 2.7-million-member teachers' union is widely viewed as closely aligned with the Democratic Party, and mostly backs Democratic candidates, Mr. Weaver said that it also reaches across the political aisle.

"We're trying to build a bipartisan relationship," he said. "It doesn't make any sense for us to only cater to one party, when a different party is in power."

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