GOP Shift on Education Pleases Moderates, Teacher Delegates

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Some moderate Republican lawmakers found a sympathetic audience of teachers’ union members this week as they talked up a shift in their party’s approach to education during the 2000 GOP convention.

The National Education Association—which has 42 members serving as delegates and alternates to the Republican National Convention this week in Philadelphia—on Tuesday sponsored a forum to honor legislators the organization has endorsed.

“I was very proud of my political party last night,” said U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, R-Del., referring to the convention’s focus on education on Monday night, the first night of the four-day- long convention.

Mr. Castle was not alone in asserting that this week’s convention offered a more positive emphasis on education and an increased discussion of a legitimate federal role in schools than Republican conventions of years past. He and other members of Congress gave their insights during a panel discussion.

“A few of us have been chiding our party” to do more on education, said Rep. Castle, who is the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth, and Families.

“What a difference this convention is over some of the others I’ve been at,” added U.S. Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio.

Many Republicans this week have been quick to stress that the party platform this year—adopted Monday afternoon—deletes any reference to abolishing the U.S. Department of Education. The change is consistent with the active federal role Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the party’s presumptive nominee for president, has advocated in his campaign.

“That’s a step in the right direction,” said U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa. While pointing out that federal funding makes up only a small percentage of the money spent in the nation’s schools, he noted that the federal contribution is “an important 7 to 8 percent.”

Sen. Voinovich said he was also pleased with the interest Laura Bush—the Texas governor’s wife— has taken in education. “The first lady has the possibility of being a teacher,” he said. Mrs. Bush is a former teacher and school librarian.

Other Republican lawmakers who attended the event included U.S. Sen. James M. Jeffords of Vermont and U.S. Reps. Constance A. Morella of Maryland, Nancy L. Johnson of Connecticut, and Amo Houghton Jr. of New York. The event was co-sponsored by the Republican Mainstream Committee, the Republican Main Street Partnership, and the Wish List, a pro-choice organization.

Laura Bush Strikes Chord

Mrs. Bush spoke on Monday night about education, and her remarks were warmly received by some of the NEA members.

“When somebody speaks from the heart about education, you can hear the sincerity in their voice,” said Jeff Osanka, an alternate who teaches at Lane Community College in Eugene, Ore. “It is clear that [Laura Bush] genuinely believes that education is the No. 1 issue in this country.”

Suzanne Emery, chair of the Republican caucus of the California Teachers’ Association, an NEA affiliate, said she is pleased to see a growing number of Republican delegates who are teachers. Ms. Emery is herself a teacher at Mira Mesa Senior High School in San Diego.

Although the total number of actual teachers was unavailable, the number of NEA members who are delegates and alternates has grown from about 30 in 1996 to 42 this year. There are 2,066 delegates overall at the convention and an equal number of alternates.

NEA President Bob Chase attributed the rise in part to the Republican Party itself.

“I think they’re becoming involved in the Republican Party on issues of education because the Republican Party is reaching out and wanting to be more involved on issues relating to public education in a positive way,” Mr. Chase said. “It’s a good relationship, a positive relationship, and one that I hope will continue to grow.”

Despite the growth, far more NEA members, at least 325, are expected to be delegates and alternates to the Democratic convention in Los Angeles later this month. The NEA in July endorsed Vice President Al Gore, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president.

Anita Harvey, a delegate from Bonita, Calif., who teaches at the Smythe Elementary School in San Ysidro, said it can be challenging at times for her as a Republican member of the NEA. For example, she said the NEA has buttons that say, “I am the NEA and I support Gore.”

She said that she took her button and covered up “Gore” with a sticker that said “Bush.”

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