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NEA President Uses Economic Competitiveness to Strike at NCLB

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Tapping into widespread concern about the nation’s economic competitiveness, National Education Association President Reg Weaver charged here yesterday that the federal No Child Left Behind Act won’t “prepare [our children] to compete with children from India and China.”

In a keynote speech before more than 8,000 delegates to the teachers’ union annual Representative Assembly, Mr. Weaver contended that the nearly 6-year-old law is eroding the “excellent education” most public school students now get while doing little to effectively close the achievement gaps that disadvantage black, Hispanic, and American Indian children.

“The so-called ‘No Child Left Behind’ Act assumed that schools by themselves could close the achievement gaps. But we can’t close the achievement gaps without bridging other chasms in our society,” such as the ones caused by poverty and unemployment, Mr. Weaver said to cheers.

On the other hand, he continued, even children who are not behind on their basic skills lose out in the more important realms of problem-solving and independent thinking as teachers endlessly prepare them for tests.

The NEA president, soon to begin his sixth and final year at the helm of the 3.2-million member union, called on citizens and policymakers to invest in the “human capital our nation will need to remain strong and prosperous.” Such investments would include many longtime goals of the NEA, for example, universal preschool education, smaller class sizes, and better pay for teachers.

Couching the goals as “an education bill of rights for children” as he spoke in the city where the U.S. Constitution was written, Mr. Weaver said that among the rights was that to have “multiple measures”—and not a single test score—used to determine student learning. Since the NCLB law’s enactment, the union has criticized reliance on state standardized test scores both as a means to chart options for students and to determine a school’s standing under the federal law.

Many delegates reflected the popularity of Mr. Weaver’s message by wearing red T-shirts emblazoned with the NEA logo and bearing the slogan: “A Child Is More Than a Test Score.” Also highly visible, this time on the curtains around the hall, were references to the group’s 150th birthday. The union had its beginnings when 43 educators joined together in Philadelphia in 1857 with the purpose of promoting education nationally.

A Proposal

One part of Mr. Weaver’s speech, though, seemed aimed more at those in policy circles than at his immediate audience of teachers, education aides, cafeteria workers, and other union members. In a long passage that failed to grip listeners, the president set forth the outlines of a plan for “an economic-development extension service” that he said would help increase productivity in the high-tech sector in much the same way the agricultural extension service helped boost it among farmers.

In contrast to Mr. Weaver’s statements over the past several years that he didn’t “know or care” where the money would come from for big-ticket changes such as a minimum salary of $40,000 for every teacher, this proposal specifies bankrolling the proposed new service with about $50 million in tax breaks states now use to attract industry—about the same amount currently lost through “federal tax loopholes.”

The plan, though vague, is in line with the NEA’s promise to drop its naysaying and focus on a new “positive agenda.” It is also a recognition that, in a climate of economic volatility and skepticism about public spending, costly changes to education will be difficult to make and need a hard-nosed rationale.

Mr. Weaver contended that the money now being saved by businesses would be better spent on designating economic-development centers at major universities, which would in turn establish research stations dedicated to fostering innovation in the businesses “that will drive the 21st-century economy,” such as alternative energy and biotechnology. The knowledge developed there would be made available at local schools and more broadly through extension agents, the union leader said.

“A program like this would empower millions of entrepreneurs across the United States to start businesses and create jobs,” Mr. Weaver asserted. It would also allow new money to flow to schools as part of upgrading the preparation of future entrepreneurs, he said.

Election Critical

“Our approach to education funding has not changed significantly in at least 30 years,” the NEA president said. “But we won’t be able to provide a great public school for every child without adequate resources and investments.”

Mr. Weaver even took a swipe at the trillion dollars he said had been spend on the war in Iraq, contending that the spending—whatever its worth for national security—threatened the nation’s economic security.

Reminding his members of “elements in our nation today who would like nothing more than to use the challenges of our schools as an excuse to destroy” public education, the union president urged them to “demand a seat at the table” in every discussion of education and to engage in politics. He pointed to last week’s U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down voluntary school desegregation by race as a reason to elect the right president in 2008.

Delegates are expected to hear from eight presidential candidates this week, seven Democrats and one Republican. Yesterday, they heard from Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., along with John Edwards, a former senator from North Carolina and former vice presidential nominee. All three took the opportunity to criticize the NCLB law.

Returning to favorite themes to cap his speech, Mr. Weaver declared that “on our 150th birthday, there ain’t no stopping us now.” He said he expected the union to help elect a president who is “a friend of education” and will help close achievement gaps, reduce the dropout rate, and fix the No Child Left Behind Law.

Vol. 26

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