NEA Takes Stand Against Bush Education Law

By Bess Keller — July 07, 2003 7 min read
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The National Education Association put up its dukes here at its annual meeting, vowing to build political muscle and fight much of President Bush’s sweeping federal education law.

Union President Reg Weaver told more than 9,000 cheering delegates in his keynote address that the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001 poses as Dr. Jekyll but is really the evil Mr. Hyde. Combined with the worst state budget crisis since World War II, the law is draining money from wiser efforts to lift student achievement and is shaping up to be “the granddaddy of all underfunded federal mandates,” he charged.

To counter that direction, the nation’s largest union is stressing recruitment of new members as never before, while launching what Mr. Weaver called “a full-court, legislative press to fix and fund” the federal law.

It also plans to challenge the legislation, the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, with a lawsuit on behalf of states, school districts, and teachers, NEA leaders announced at the start of the July 1-6 gathering.

“NEA has immense problems with NCLB,” said Robert H. Chanin, the chief counsel for the 2.7 million-member union. “At this convention, I think any pretense of support has been swept away.”

The requirements of the law, one of the signature initiatives for President Bush when he came to office, include annual testing in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8; increasingly severe consequences for schools that fail to meet standards; and higher teacher qualifications. Most kick in over the next few years, but some are already having negative effects, teachers at the meeting said.

Among the specific changes sought by the union: a definition of a “highly qualified” teacher that requires less proof of content knowledge; more flexibility for states in measuring schools’ progress and in imposing penalties; and money for states and districts to help classroom assistants meet new quality standards. The union will also try to make full funding of the law a prerequisite of mandatory compliance.

‘Whining’ or Cry for Help?

That, too, is the aim of the proposed lawsuit, which is based on a provision of the ESEA that the union believes protects states and districts from having to spend their own money to comply with its requirements.

The NEA says the federal government has not earmarked enough money to revamp testing systems, offer more school choice to parents, or train teachers and classroom assistants—all routes state and local authorities are taking to comply with the law.

Mr. Chanin said the lawsuit turns on unfunded mandates because that argument is likely to draw the most support from the union’s allies, including civics rights groups, some of which are in favor of the law’s implementation.

The lawyer said he is in discussion with officials in several states, hoping they will sign on to the lawsuit. Legislators in Hawaii, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Utah have introduced bills that propose opting out of the federal law, even at the risk of losing federal Title I money for the disadvantaged, Mr. Chanin noted. Other possible plaintiffs include school districts and local teachers’ unions, but the national union will go it alone, if need be, Mr. Chanin said. He said he plans to file the suit sometime this summer.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige criticized the suit, contending that the legal action amounts to a “coalition of the whining to hold kids back.”

“It is unfortunate that the NEA establishment is talking about ways to hinder the goal of true reform and greater educational achievement opportunities for our children,” Mr. Paige said in a statement.

Mr. Weaver sharply disagreed, saying teachers weren’t whining but crying out for help. “The powers that be should find ways to stop the crying,” the union president said, “such that [educators] will have what they need to be successful in providing a quality education for young people.”

Strengthening Affiliates

Dubbed “Great Public Schools for Every Child,” the NEA’s new recruitment and lobbying campaign will succeed by strengthening state affiliates, said director John Stocks, a former top official with the union’s Wisconsin affiliate. The NEA plans to help struggling affiliates offer more programs for teachers, recruit new members, and organize active locals, he said.

He added that the plan also calls for stepping up communication between the state, local, and national levels to maximize the power of teachers as they lobby officials and prepare to cast their ballots in the 2004 general elections.

“There’s going to be much more focus on [membership and organizing],” Mr. Stocks promised. The resources dedicated to the plan so far have included staff members, some of whom have already been detailed to the work full time, and $300,000 from the budget for the fiscal year that ends in August.

Affiliates in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, and South Carolina are the first to get attention because of their current “low market share” and their potential for new members, according to Mr. Stocks.

Mr. Weaver, who was elected president of the organization last year after serving six years as vice president, said concern about membership stretches back to about 2000. People saw then that the rate of membership gains was slipping, he said.

“We got away from member organizing because we moved into a kind of professional-development area,” Mr. Weaver said. “People started to ask, why doesn’t the NEA get back into the organizing mode?”

At the annual meeting, Secretary-Treasurer Lily Eskelsen reported to the delegates that “we are up, but we are tapering off.”

In the 2001-02 year, the last for which the NEA has complete figures, about half the affiliates lost members.

Horror Stories

Whether the union’s new tack portends a sharp lessening of interest in the “new unionism” championed by former NEA President Bob Chase, who headed the union from 1996 to 2002, is unclear. New unionism tried to meld traditional union concerns such as salaries, working conditions, and organizing with a broad view of the needs of schools.

Mr. Chase, who attended last week’s meeting, would not comment on the fate of his legacy, saying only that teachers were facing very tough times and that concern with membership should never lapse.

Meanwhile, evidence of the new campaign was everywhere at the convention center here in New Orleans, starting with the giant red and blue Great Public Schools for Every Child banners decorating the cavernous space in which delegates met to make policy. In another room, delegates from around the country told what they billed as their No Child Left Behind horror stories to a video camera for use in lobbying and public relations. In state caucus sessions, delegates completed postcards to their legislators. And teachers trooped to specially set-up phones and computers to send voice- and e-mail messages on the ESEA to their representatives in Congress.

Kindergarten teacher Nancy T. Banales, for one, e-mailed her senators and representative about the law, telling them to oppose its provisions. A member of the Fontana Teachers Association in California, Ms. Banales said she was concerned about teachers such as her classroom neighbor who will not meet the “highly qualified” standard set by the law without additional training.

“They have been teaching all these years, and all of a sudden they’re unqualified?” she protested.

Blair Bolles, a middle school teacher in the Downey, Calif., district, told her lawmakers by e-mail that the law will actually widen the gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students that it was intended to close. By stigmatizing struggling schools and driving away students, only those with no other choices will be left at some schools, she wrote.

“It sets up impossible standards,” Ms. Bolles argued.

The Youngest Set

In other business, the delegates approved a policy recommending mandatory kindergarten for 5-year-olds and voluntary, but universally available, prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds for the full school day. The policy also said kindergartners should be no younger and no older than 5 when they enter the classroom, although exceptions to the general rule should occasionally be allowed.

Delegates struggled with the question of whether they should support spending public money on private pre-K programs. But members of the committee that wrote the policy argued that the critical schooling—which has proved its beneficial effect on student learning—is in short supply, and many private programs would not be able to operate without public support.

The committee also urged the union’s governing body, which accepted the recommendation, that no attempt should be made to organize early-childhood teachers or caregivers in private facilities.


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