Education

Educators Prepped At Pre-Convention Events

September 21, 2004 5 min read
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A day before the Democratic National Convention was to get under way here, hundreds of educators taking part gathered for caucus meetings run by the two national teachers’ unions to get organized and fired up.

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They’d come from all over the country. Educators and their unions will be represented in full force at the July 26-29 convention, whether by a kindergarten teacher from Wisconsin, a college professor from Mississippi, or a retired teacher from Wyoming.

“Yeah, baby!” yelled National Education Association President Reg Weaver, seeking to rev up a crowd of some 275 delegates and alternates at the Boston Sheraton Hotel’s Grand Ballroom on July 25. “Ain’t no stoppin’ us now, because we are simply outstanding!”

“We came here to do a job,” he said. “No, no, we came here to start a job. ... We will finish the job on November. Who are you gonna wake up to ... as president?” The crowd, picking up its cue, shouted back, “Kerry!”

“You better have said that,” Mr. Weaver replied with a laugh. His union, which has delegates from 49 states at the convention, this month formally backed Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts as the party’s presidential nominee.

Mr. Weaver will be speaking to a much, much bigger audience on July 27, when he’s slated to get about three minutes, beginning at 5:15 p.m., to address the entire convention at the nearby FleetCenter.

The American Federation of Teachers, which also has endorsed Mr. Kerry, hosted a meeting for its member delegates on July 25, but it was not open to the press. The union has 125 delegates and alternates from 28 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.

Edward J. McElroy, the newly elected AFT president, was expected to address the full convention on the first day, July 26, sometime between 6 and 7 p.m.

The union members are among nearly 5,000 delegates and alternates to the Democratic National Convention.

Delegates’ To-Do List

The NEA had billed its gathering as two back-to-back events: a brunch honoring the Massachusetts congressional delegation, followed by a delegates’ meeting to discuss matters related to the convention.

As it happened, the brunch didn’t turn out quite as planned. The food was there. The NEA members were there. A jazz quintet filled the hall with music. But only one Massachusetts member of Congress, Rep. John F. Tierney, showed up.

Denise Cardinal, an NEA spokeswoman, said all the Democrats had been invited to drop by, but the union understood that Massachusetts lawmakers, playing hosts, already had a lot on their plates this week.

“They’re invited to 300 things a day,” she said.

Even so, two other special guests stopped by: Rep. Dale E. Kildee of Michigan, the second-ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, and Christine Vilsack, a former educator and the wife of Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, a rising star in the Democratic Party who was reportedly on Sen. Kerry’s short list of possible running mates.

In his brief remarks, Rep. Kildee noted that he had been a teacher for 10 years before quitting that profession for a life in politics. If mentioning his former job wasn’t enough to win over the crowd, he quickly played on heartstrings by going to one of the union’s signature policy issues: opposition to vouchers.

“For 26 years, I fought successfully to block vouchers, period, for nonpublic schools,” he said. “It took George Bush to sign the bill that created vouchers for Washington, D.C., and we’re going to send him back to Texas for doing that.”

NEA Executive Director John Wilson outlined the three things he was hoping member-delegates would do during their stay in Boston.

“First, you need to be a cheerleader,” he said. "[Y]ou’re part of the program, and it’s important to show the kind of solidarity for the best ticket for education.”

“Now, your second job is to be a messenger,” Mr. Wilson continued, “because for every one of you, there are two people from the press. ... And they’re going to want to talk to you.”

He encouraged members to focus on the message of “how important it is to have a team in Washington who supports our public schools, who understands the value of every child. ...”

And third, he told members they are “ambassadors,” both for their home states and for the NEA.

Complaints About Bush Law

Several delegates interviewed at the meeting certainly needed no prodding to express their hope of seeing Mr. Kerry displace President Bush at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

“The president came in touting to be this compassionate conservative,” said Luigi Battaglieri, the president of the Michigan Education Association and a “superdelegate” from that state. “He has been conservative on compassion when it comes to children’s education, children’s health, children’s issues, and so that’s the reason why I’m on board with Senator Kerry.”

Milton Bond Jr., a high school teacher from Milwaukee, Wis., and a first-time delegate from that state, said he wanted to come to the Boston convention because of his concern about the direction the country is heading under President Bush.

And part of that concern is directed at the federal No Child Left Behind Act, a bipartisan revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and one of Mr. Bush’s signature domestic accomplishments.

“President Bush actually came to our school, Rufus King, [to discuss the law],” Mr. Bond said, referring to a visit to Rufus King International Baccalaureate High School in May 2002, four months after the president signed the measure into law.

“Even then, it didn’t sit with me,” he said. “And then, the more I lived it, I just felt that something has to be done.”

Mr. Bond echoed many complaints that his union has leveled at the law, which holds schools accountable for showing yearly academic gains by their students.

“I feel like you’re punishing schools, and you’re punishing students. It’s an empty policy,” he said.

Rae Lynn Job, a retired educator and state senator from Wyoming, also was in Boston as a first-time delegate. For her, the motivation was twofold.

“I want two things back,” she said. “I want respect for America back, and I want respect for education back. And I don’t think the Republican Party can deliver on either one of those things.”

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