Reporter’s Notebook

July 07, 2004 9 min read
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Still Mad at Rod Paige

Patty Vaughm and Jeanne Sanchez-Bell wave their signs and shout in support of Mark Cebulski, who’s running for a three-year term on the National Education Association executive committee, as potential voters stream past on their way to the polls. Occasionally, as Ms. Vaughm turns, jostling for position amid a throng of contending supporters, people smile when they see the words emblazoned on the back of her bright orange T-shirt: “We are all Terrorists Activists.”


from the NEA’s annual meeting:

NEA President Reg Weaver‘s introduction of Sen. Clinton. (0:35; MP3 format)

Excerpts from Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton‘s address at the NEA’s annual meeting. (4:26; MP3 format)

Gloria Buck, 30-year special education teacher, Lapeer Community Schools, Michigan. (1:23; MP3 format)

Coy D. Marquardt, 7th-grade teacher, Iowa City, Iowa, a first-time delegate. (1:15; MP3 format)

Nancy Ruth White, Redlands, Calif., retired 35-year educator and veteran delegate. (1:55; MP3 format)

Barbara Wilson, school librarian, Mineral, Virginia, 21-year NEA member. (1:40; MP3 format)

The words elicit a number of responses—from chuckles and thumbs up to eager grins from delegates who’ve just purchased shirts and readily sport them for all to see. The T-shirts, which are selling for $5 each at a nearby booth, illustrate the still-raw feelings of many delegates not only toward U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who called the NEA a “terrorist organization” back in February, but toward the Bush administration at large.

“That he would call teachers terrorists is absurd, but for us it was a plus,” said Ms. Vaughm, a 3rd grade teacher from Wisconsin. “It showed how powerful we are as teachers to be called terrorists.”

Ms. Vaughm and Ms. Sanchez-Bell, a high school teacher from the same state, concur with many of the conference delegates that many of the Bush administration’s education policies, particularly support for vouchers, have had a hard impact on public schools.

In Milwaukee, for example, Sandra Wilart, who serves as an educational support staffer, says that vouchers have been a constant drain on public school resources. According to Ms. Wilart, the voucher program has forced schools to lay off librarians and fine-arts teachers, and 300 teaching positions cannot be filled because the district doesn’t have the money. “In the short run and the long run, [vouchers] have caused the district to stretch its resources to the breaking point,” she charged in an interview.

Manny Lopez, a 2nd grade Spanish bilingual teacher from Oakland, Calif., purchased the shirt to express his continued outrage over the comment. “I honestly believe that Secretary Paige’s comments were reprehensible,” said Mr. Lopez, who teaches at E. Morris Cox Elementary School, which is located in a high-poverty, high-crime area and has high teacher turnover. Mr. Lopez, who requested that Mr. Paige resign, contended that he wouldn’t last a day in the Redlands district and that his comments were indicative of the administration’s ignorance. “Bush came in saying he would be a compassionate conservative,” said Mr. Lopez. “But what he’s been is conservative on his compassion.”

Susan Aspey, a spokeswoman for Mr. Paige, reiterated the U.S. Department of Education’s standard response when it comes to the secretary’s remarks. Mr. Paige immediately apologized, Ms. Aspey said, noting that he was not referring to the NEA rank and file.

While the shirts put a thumb in the face of the Bush administration, some of Mr. Cebulski’s supporters are using them to put a positive spin on a negative comment.

Ms. Vaughm, who hopes that Mr. Cebulski will be able to help in lobbying for full funding of the No Child Left Behind Act, said the T-shirts were made to catch people’s attention and encourage them to support their fellow teachers and become active in public education. “You have to take negative items and make them positive because you can go somewhere with the positive,” she said.

Planes, Trains, and Bicycles

Some delegates arrived by train, some by plane. Others came by car or by bus, and a few local delegates even walked, but Patrick Rumaker has them all beat. He used pedal power. That’s right. Mr. Rumaker, a middle school teacher from Thomas Jefferson Elementary School in Washington Township, N.J., a suburb of Philadelphia, rode his Trek Hybrid bicycle 250 miles from Philadelphia to the nation’s capital.

“This is the longest bike ride I’ve done,” said Mr. Rumaker, 40, who has been cycling since he was a teenager and has always dreamed of biking across the country. His 4th and 5th graders were his initial supporters, but as word of his plan spread, fellow delegates urged him to use the ride as a way to raise money for the NEA’s political action committee. The three-day ride raised $3,500.

Mr. Rumaker used a nationwide map published by the Adventure Cycling Association to locate bike-friendly roads and trails. “Yes, it is possible to get from Philadelphia to Washington on back roads, believe it or not,” said Mr. Rumaker. Surprisingly, he didn’t experience any problems typical of long-distance riding, such as flat tires or bad weather, during the trip. The biggest challenge, he said, was adjusting to the hills in Maryland’s Susquehanna Valley, a big change from South Jersey, which is flat. He intends to plan a cross-country ride from New Jersey to Washington state next summer.

“One of the ways I discipline myself to do these things is by telling [my students] I’m doing it,” he said, but noted that another inspiration came from a couple he encountered on the ride here. “I ran into this married couple around the Mason-Dixon line. They were cycling from Portland, Maine, to San Diego, Calif. The husband was 70, and the wife was 67.”

Kerry Snub?

They say politics is like dancing. One missed step, and you’ve crushed somebody’s big toe.

On the morning of July 6, NEA staffers were feeling a bit stepped on when they learned that Sen. John Kerry would be unable to attend the conference. Mr. Kerry, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, had just announced that fellow Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina had been chosen as his vice presidential running mate. Mr. Kerry was scheduled to speak before the delegates later that day, but canceled after the announcement.

Or did he?

During the Representative Assembly’s morning session, union President Reg Weaver received a call. His face glowing, he placed a cell phone before the microphone and said, “I’m not going to tell you who this is, but I want you to tell them you are the NEA.”

The crowd swept to its feet, and the auditorium erupted into cheers as Mr. Weaver beamed. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but somebody’s coming,” he shouted over the crowd.

And something did happen. Somebody did come. Over the next few hours, barriers were set up, a swarm of dark-clothed law-enforcement officers appeared, and then Mr. Weaver interrupted the assembly and announced that company had arrived.

“One of our friends was not able to be here,” he said. “But all this ended up proving to us is just how many friends we have. And she needs no more introduction than to say, Here’s Hillary!”

To a standing ovation, he introduced former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“I was in the neighborhood,” said Sen. Clinton. “And I heard that there were a few of my friends over at the convention center. So I decided to come take a look at you, and you’re looking good.”

The New York Democrat gave a 17-minute speech in which she praised the NEA’s decision to endorse John Kerry, thanked Reg Weaver for his hard work, and encouraged the delegates to educate their communities about public education and become involved in the democratic process by urging their neighbors to vote. She also criticized the Bush administration for seeking to cut after-school programs, limiting funding for facilities modernization, failing to deal with overcrowded classrooms, and trying to dismantle the public school system through vouchers.

The current administration, she said, likes to “talk the talk, but does not walk the walk.”

If George Bush were a student, she said slyly, much to the amusement of the crowd, then teachers would be sending notes home to his mother: “Dear Ms. Bush. He never admits when he’s wrong.”

“We stand by our record,” Ms. Aspey said of the criticism aimed at the Education Department, while acknowledging how difficult change can be. “After directing billions of dollars into the public school system, it’s not too much to ask to see results,” she added.

As crowd members tossed red, white, and blue balloons across the assembly floor, Sen. Clinton’s final comments were nearly drowned out by the chant: “Kerry!” Sen. Clinton said the energy in the room was enough to keep the lights on in Washington for a week, but warned that energy was useless if the delegates failed to educate and involve their communities. She challenged those gathered to end the Bush administration’s days in the White House and elect Mr. Kerry.

Despite the delegates’ enthusiastic welcome for Sen. Clinton, many were still angry that they had been snubbed by Mr. Kerry and took to the floor to express their disapproval.

At the same time, union leaders apparently were working behind the scenes to smooth things over. Delegates got what they asked for, at least in part. Sens. Kerry and Edwards addressed the Representative Assembly the next afternoon, July 7, in a live satellite feed.

Background Music

If you attend an NEA conference, you may find yourself wondering if the meeting hall is a second home for the Phantom of the Opera. But you’d be mistaken, for the beautiful music that floats from the hall during every intermission is the work of Robert A. Lague, a 30-year music teacher from Massachusetts.

Mr. Lague, who began playing at the convention in 1986, has become a popular fixture and draws crowds who weave and sway, take his picture, and often join in to sing stirring renditions of “God Bless America” or more fun ditties such as “Home on the Range,” “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” and “I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad.”

“Playing for the NEA is just a thrill,” said Mr. Lague, who began his teaching career in Lexington, Mass., and has been attending the conference since 1976. He plays multiple genres—classical, jazz, gospel, and even Broadway hits. The only song he won’t play is “Dixie” because the NEA staff felt that its association with the South and racial segregation might offend some members.

Union members, however, may be among the few who will continue to appreciate Mr. Lague’s musical talent. The Stoneham public schools, where Mr. Lague has served as fine-arts director, recently issued him a pink slip after the town failed to pass a $2.9 million tax increase. Nine out of 13 members of Mr. Lague’s staff also got the slips.

“When you have financial problems like Massachusetts, it makes it difficult for towns to support education,” said Mr. Lague, who added that if he can’t find a new job, he will consider retiring. Still, he laments the loss of fine-arts programs, which are often among the first cut when public schools face financial constraints.

“Music and art are not just good for themselves,” he said, pointing out that arts courses can teach students to be confident, how to ask questions, and skills that can help them succeed in other subjects. "[Schools] are not just losing courses, they’re losing [a way] for students to [excel] in other courses.”

Despite his situation, Mr. Lague said he would continue to play for the NEA. So what’s his most requested song? “Ashokan Farewell,” a song in Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary series.

—Marianne D. Hurst

Online Editor Craig Stone contributed to this report.


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