This article was originally published in Education Week.
In 2001, the National Education Association took no position on the No Child Left Behind Act. It did not lobby for or against the bill, which Congress passed with large bipartisan majorities late that year.
This year, the nation’s largest teachers’ union is neither quiet nor equivocal.
As Congress works to revise the NCLB law, the 3.2 million-member union and its California affiliate are mounting a vigorous campaign against the law and the most prominent proposal for reauthorizing it.
From its national headquarters in Washington, the NEA’s staff has issued “action alerts” urging its members to oppose a House draft bill that would change key parts of the law. For a September hearing, the NEA flew in union members from all of the congressional districts represented on the House Education and Labor Committee to lobby House members in the hallway and in the committee’s anterooms.
“What we do not need is another bad No Child Left Behind bill,” NEA President Reg Weaver said in an interview last week.
On the West Coast, the California Teachers Association has staged a press conference in front of the San Francisco office of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and paid for a series of radio and Web ads that attack the House draft bill.
“We learned from the last time from not getting involved,” CTA President David A. Sanchez said in an interview last week.
The NEA is known for the influence it exerts in electoral politics and legislation, both at the federal and state levels. The 340,000-member CTA is the NEA’s largest state affiliate and one of the most politically active. Last year, the CTA spent $12.6 million on statewide campaign activities, according to reports filed with the California secretary of state’s office.
While the CTA is a powerful force in state politics, its clout on the NCLB reauthorization extends to federal policy because federal lawmakers from California play pivotal roles in the law’s future. In addition to Rep. Pelosi’s role as speaker, two Californians hold the most important spots on the House Education and Labor Committee. Rep. George Miller, a Democrat, is the panel’s chairman, and Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon is its senior Republican member.
A Turn Against School Law
When the No Child Left Behind bill—an overhaul of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, first adopted in 1965—was under consideration in 2001, the NEA decided to remain neutral because the union supported some of its provisions and opposed others. (“Unions’ Positions Unheeded on ESEA,” Nov. 6, 2002.)
The law requires states to assess students in grade 3-8 and once in high school and hold schools accountable for their students being proficient in reading and mathematics by the end of the 2013-14 school year. It also requires that states establish definitions of a “highly qualified teacher.”
By 2005, the NEA had turned against the law and filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of three school districts and 10 of its affiliates, claiming that NCLB wrongly imposed unfunded federal mandates.
A federal district judge in Michigan dismissed the case, a ruling that is under appeal.
The NEA’s opposition intensified this past August, when the leaders of the House education committee released a “discussion draft” of a bill to reauthorize the law, which President Bush signed in January 2002 and which stands as one of his biggest domestic-policy accomplishments. Rep. Miller and Rep. McKeon released the proposal as a first step in the reauthorization process.The draft would expand the types of data used to determine whether a school is meeting its achievement goals under the law and would create a program encouraging districts to experiment with rewarding teachers for their students’ achievement gains.
But Reps. Miller and McKeon haven’t been able to agree on details in the draft and haven’t generated enough support for it. A NCLB reauthorization bill is unlikely to pass the House this year.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, DMass., the chairman of the Senate education committee, has said the Senate isn’t going to be able to take up the NCLB law in 2007.
The lobbying by the NEA and the CTA has been one reason for the postponements, said Bruce Hunter, the associate executive director of public policy for the American Association of School Administrators, based in Arlington,Va.
“This thing you can do best if you’re a big hitter is stop things,” said Mr. Hunter, whose organization also opposes the NCLB law and the House draft bill to change it.
In their campaigns against the main federal law for K-12 education, the NEA and its California state affiliate have highlighted their opposition to the law’s emphasis on using tests scores to determine whether a school is successful. Their biggest complaint about the House draft bill, however, is that it would provide competitive grants to encourage districts to reward teachers, in part, based on their students’ achievement on those tests.
By contrast, the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers has opposed many of those same sections of the bill but has done so in lower-profile ways, such as through testimony before the House education committee and in written comments about the draft.
The NEA and the CTA have been vocal in complaining that the merit-pay proposal would violate the collective-bargaining rights of their local affiliates. Almost all teacher contracts establish a salary scale that bases pay primarily on teachers’ educational credentials, such as attainment of a master’s degree, and years of service.
The national union’s opposition to new forms of compensation is “wrongheaded,” said Brad Jupp, a former vice president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, an NEA affiliate.
Mr. Jupp, now an adviser to the 72,000-student Denver district, helped design an alternative-compensation program while he was the Denver union’s lead negotiator in 1999. The union agreed to pilot a pay-for-performance plan. The plan, which has since been adopted districtwide, rewards teachers for improving student achievement, choosing to work in hard-to-staff schools, and earning positive appraisals from peer evaluators.
Accepting the new system was the only way Denver teachers could win a substantial raise at the bargaining table,Mr. Jupp said.
“It’s just a matter of time before [union locals] make that bargain,” Mr. Jupp said, adding that national union leaders “have failed to hear the cry that it’s time to change the way teachers are paid.”
Teachers’ Best Interests
Enough states and districts are experimenting with new pay systems that the NEA and the CTA are unlikely to succeed in their efforts to stop them, said Russlynn Ali, the executive director of the Education Trust-West, the Oakland, Calif., office of the Education Trust.
The Washington-based group is a vocal supporter of the NCLB law. “The idea of pay for performance … is not something that is going to go away on the state level or the federal level,” said Ms. Ali, who has opposed the CTA on proposals to change teacher pay programs in California. “It’s going to bubble up in many states.”
But on issues related to testing and accountability, one teacher who belongs to the AFT said the NEA is representing teachers’ best interests. In the nearly six years since the No Child Left Behind Act became law, it has spurred changes in classroom practice to focus on basic skills, and has taken away teachers’ authority to design their curricula and assess students’ learning using their own measures, said John Thompson, a history and government teacher at Centennial High School in Oklahoma City.
“The closer you are to the classroom, the more you despise that law,” said Mr. Thompson, an American Federation of Teachers member. The NEA’s leaders are “just saying the hard truths that people agree with,” he said.
The national union is feeling emboldened by the CTA’s success in stalling the NCLB reauthorization process, said Mr. Sanchez of the CTA.
Mr. Sanchez said that whether Congress reauthorizes the law under President Bush or his successor, he hopes federal lawmakers find a way “to come out with a bill that will bring back the joy of teaching and not have a stringent, one-size-fits-all approach.”