NEA Woos Republican Lawmakers

By Sean Cavanagh — September 17, 2004 3 min read

The nation’s largest teachers’ union staged a meet-and-greet luncheon on Aug. 30 to try to win over what has been a tough audience lately: Congressional Republicans.

If leaders from the National Education Association didn’t win those lawmakers over, chances are they at least wowed them with the location: the swanky Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan.

The teachers’ union, which has been highly critical of the No Child Left Behind Act signed into law by President Bush, invited a select group of GOP members of Congress who are in town for the Republican National Convention.

Audio Extras

• Highlighting President Bush’s prime-time speech, the presence of silent protesters, as well as some celebrity sightings, staff writer Michelle Davis files her final report from the GOP convention. (3:28) Windows Media format | MP3 format

•Staff writer Michelle Davis reports on Gov. Schwarzenegger’s appearance at a public elementary school in Harlem, and the upcoming address Thursday evening by President Bush. (2:30) Windows Media format | MP3 format

• Staff writer Sean Cavanagh reports on the convention addresses by Education Secretary Rod Paige and first lady Laura Bush. (3:03) Windows Media format | MP3 format

Education Week staff writer Michelle Davis reports on the education chatter, or lack thereof, at the convention. (2:21) Windows Media format | MP3 format

Education Week staff writer Sean Cavanagh files a report on the weekend buildup to the convention. (3:01) Windows Media format | MP3 format

The union gathering drew several members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including Judy Biggert of Illinois, Phil English of Pennsylvania, Jim Leach of Iowa, and Frank A. LoBiondo of New Jersey. Those lawmakers said they saw the potential for an improved relationship between the NEA and the Bush administration, which has joined some members of Congress in accusing the union of distorting the mission and requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act.

“It is important, in terms of the NEA, which is one of the bellwether professional organizations in America, to deal with the political process in a thoroughly professional, bipartisan manner,” Rep. Leach said. “I think this lunch is in some ways symbolic of that. I think there’s huge potential for teachers to take different emphases that can unite the country. At the moment, the emphasis is on what divides and challenges.”

Since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed with bipartisan support in 2001, the NEA has had a particularly strained relationship with the Bush administration, which has accused the union of distorting facts about the law and rallying teachers against it.

NEA President Reg Weaver acknowledged that it might be more difficult to warm relations with the administration than with individual members of Congress. But Rep. Leach saw benefits for both the White House and members of Congress in working with the union.

“I would hope there could be an enormous thaw,” Mr. Leach said. “There’s nothing more foolhardy than to have contentiousness between a major political party and a professional organization, especially one that is so central to education.”

The NEA invited 12 GOP lawmakers to the luncheon. Despite its close alignment with the Democratic Party, the union is officially recommending some of the Republicans for re- election. Other attendees were members of Congress who have worked with the organization on legislation in the past, NEA spokeswoman Denise Cardinal said.

Rep. English described the gathering as “extremely constructive.” He said the union could be a valuable resource in helping lawmakers gauge the impact of federal education reform in the classroom, recent political rhetoric aside.

“I think that it’s useful to have differences on No Child Left Behind,” he said. “There’s such a broad scope to what we’re trying to do with this reform effort, we need to understand the real life consequences of some of the testing regimes in terms of how they’re affecting what is taught.”

“This is about relationship-building,” Mr. Weaver said, “and there’s nothing wrong with reaching out to people who may at some point disagree with you. If in fact there’s no conversation, there’s never a chance of coming together.”