Secretary of Education William J. Bennett stepped up his crusade against the National Education Association in a major speech here last week, challenging Presidential candidates to “stand firm” against the union and support accountability in the schools.
In sharply worded remarks on “Education Reform and the 1988 Election,” given at the National Press Club and repeated two days later at a press conference in Chapel Hill, N.C., Mr. Bennett called the teachers’ union the “most entrenched and aggressive opponent of education reform” in the nation.
He criticized the union for opposing, through its state affiliates, performance-based pay for teachers, alternative-certification routes, teacher-competency testing, and standardized tests for students.
“The fact is that for its recent behavior, the National Education Association deserves an award: the most mis-named organization in America,” Mr. Bennett said. “I therefore propose that every candidate for President should be asked this: On which issues will you stand with the NEA, and on which will you stand with the American people?”
Mr. Bennett spoke at the press club last Tuesday, three days before nine Presidential candidates were scheduled to debate education issues at the University of North Carolina. He repeated his attack at a press conference on Thursday afternoon, but contrary to expectations, he did not mention the nea when he spoke at a banquet on the evening before the debate.
The Secretary’s latest barrage against the union follows several months in which both sides have traded barbs. (See story, page 18.)
Although Mr. Bennett has regularly criticized the “education establishment” since assuming office more than two years ago, the nea has increasingly been the focus of his attacks. In sharp contrast, he has been noticeably silent on the subject of the rival teachers’ union, the American Federation of Teachers.
For its part, the nea has mounted a growing campaign against Mr. Bennett and the Reagan Administration for their lack of support for education spending.
Nea officials last week attributed Mr. Bennett’s latest onslaught to “purely political” motives.
In a statement released immediately following the speech here, Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the union, described the Secretary as “a public official interested only in playing to the media and in exploiting education to position himself for higher office--the vice presidency or even higher.”
Mr. Bennett’s “real gripe about the nea is that we have stood between him and his efforts to undermine the federal role in education,” she said, adding: “We’re not lonely; we’re in good company. He has attacked virtually everyone within the education community. No one has escaped. And he tends to put himself outside any area of accountability.’'
‘Big and Wrong’
In an interview last week, Mr. Bennett described the union’s response as “entirely ad hominem” and “personal.” (See story, page 1.)
Looking back on his history of comments about the nea, Mr. Bennett said, “This has not been like the flowers: ‘I love you, I love you not.’ I’ve been saying for years, ‘I’m not happy with you.’ There’s barely a speech I give when I don’t say the nea needs to improve. I haven’t been fickle or indecisive or ambivalent. They’re a mess.”
One reason for his sharp remarks, the Secretary said, is precisely that the nea is so powerful. “They represent the status quo incarnate,’' he noted. “They’re very big and very powerful and they’re not doing anything much constructive.”
“They’re the most powerful labor union in the world, the most powerful special interest in education, maybe the most powerful special interest in the United States,” he added. “But it’s not just because they’re big. It’s that they’re big and wrong. That’s the problem. Big doesn’t bother me. But big and wrong, big and obstructive, big and self-interested and not working in the interests of children, that’s what bothers me.”
“Part of this is for teachers themselves to realize what kind of group is representing them,” he stated.
In last week’s speeches, Mr. Bennett portrayed the union as an enemy of greater accountability in the schools, which he termed “the single most important and needed improvement we can make in our educational system.”
In his National Press Club speech, the Secretary said that the “most striking feature” of school reform to date had been the “relative lack of progress--the relative lack of real results--before us"--which he attributed to the absence of rewards and punishments for performance within the system.
“There are greater, more certain, and more immediate penalties in this country for serving up a single rotten hamburger than for furnishing a thousand schoolchildren with a rotten education,” the Secretary said.
In that context, he pointed to performance-based pay for teachers as one issue on which the candidates “need to stand firm.”
“Pay based on performance is the best way we have to introduce accountability to teaching,” Mr. Bennett said. “Yet there is no concept more vehemently opposed by the nea”
“It is my belief,” he added, “that the position a [Presidential] candidate takes on performance-based pay will provide a clear indication of his commitment to real education reform.”
“The candidate’s answer to this question--should teachers and principals who do better than others be paid better than others?--will demonstrate his ability to place what is best for American schools before what is best for teacher unions.”
Mr. Bennett suggested that opposing the union’s policies would be particularly hard for candidates of the Democratic party, which has enjoyed the nea’s support in the last three Presidential campaigns. But he noted that the union’s backing has not always been advantageous.
“For a candidate of the Democratic party, defying the nea on certain issues will be an act of political courage,” the Secretary said, “but it will be far from an act of political suicide.”
Mr. Bennett also argued that the nea does not reflect the views of many teachers. He stated that according to exit polls, in 1984 a majority of teachers voted for Ronald Reagan and not for Walter Mondale, who was the nea’s choice.
In addition, he said, polls have found that the majority of teachers support periodic competency testing for teachers and some form of performance-based pay.
In an interview last week, Ms. Futrell disputed those findings. An independent exit poll conducted in 1984 for the union found that most of its members did support the nea candidate, she said.
Money Not Enough
Mr. Bennett also advised candidates to “get behind” such ideas as state control of academically deficient school districts, greater parental choice in education, and the regular assessment of student performance.
And he reiterated his opinion that more money is not the prescription for better schools.
“The fact is that education spending alone is not enough,” Mr. Bennett said. “And in 1988, candidates who speak solely of raising spending ought to be asked this: They ought to be asked how their spending in8creases will differ from those of the 60’s and 70’s.”
For Republican Presidential candidates, who have traditionally advocated tight federal budgets, Mr. Bennett had a different message.
“Republicans must do better than look at education through the green eye-shades of the accountant,” the Secretary cautioned. “As a Republican, I say that my fellow Republicans ought to set forth a distinctive, tough-minded, and positive education agenda. And one part of that agenda should consist of improving the education of the disadvantaged.”
That statement was met with more than a little skepticism by the nea, which has repeatedly criticized Mr. Bennett and the Administration for trying to cut the education budget--much of which funds services for the disadvantaged.
“He never knew that [disadvantaged students] existed until this year,” said Keith Geiger, vice president of the union.
In addition, Ms. Futrell argued that the Secretary’s speech presented a “one-sided view” of the nea
“It’s not a complete picture,” she said. “We have not supported hist of education reform. But in state after state after state, we have supported 85 percent or 90 percent of the education reforms proposed.’'
Where Mr. Bennett and the union disagree is on particular issues, she said. “For example, we don’t believe that allowing people to come in who are not trained to be teachers is a constructive way to improve the quality of education. We don’t think that merit pay is the way to encourage people to do a better job.”
Ms. Futrell also said she had met with the Secretary five times since he took office, and that on at least three of those occasions she wrote follow-up letters offering to work with the Education Department.
“The meetings, I thought, went well,” she said. "... [B]ut after that, nothing happened. He has not been willing to work with us.”
But Mr. Bennett responded last week that “we’ve always done what we were asked, except when the [nea] said a condition of follow-up is that you give us more money, which is a pretty standard nea-kind of response.”