Presidential Hopefuls Tell NEA Delegates What They Want to Hear

By Bess Keller — July 06, 2007 6 min read

They could, for the most part, have been reading from the National Education Association’s talking points.

The seven Democratic candidates for president who trooped through the annual convention of the nation’s largest union here this week blasted the No Child Left Behind Act. To a one, they blamed the legislation for spurring too much testing. And most of them accused it of narrowing the curriculum and depriving children of chances to think deeper, solve problems, and get creative.

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Video clips of the presidential candidates addressing the convention are posted by the NEA.

“Children are getting good at filling in those little bubbles,” said U.S. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, “but how much creativity is being left behind, how much passion?”

President Bush’s signature domestic law even took an indirect hit from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, the lone Republican candidate to accept an invitation to speak at the convention. Mr. Huckabee, who is not among the current three front-runners for his party’s nomination, urged a greater focus on music and art in the nation’s schools. Neither is a subject tested under the NCLB law, and many educators say they are not getting their due.

U.S. Sens. Barack Obama of Illinois and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware argued that the law’s focus on testing is harming the ability of students to keep the nation competitive in a global economy.

John Edwards, the former senator from North Carolina who ran for vice president with the defeated John Kerry in 2004, said testing-mania was part of the reason that America’s schools are not doing more to bring together what he terms two nations—one for the rich and one for everyone else, a theme of his campaign. “A test never taught a child anything,” he said.

The more than 8,000 delegates to the June 30-July 5 gathering cheered the criticisms, reflected on many of their own chests with T-shirts and stickers declaring “A Child Is More Than a Test Score.”

The presidential hopefuls agreed that the law has been long on accountability but short on resources that would allow teachers and principals to be successful. Most explicitly called for higher funding levels.

U.S. Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, a dark horse in the race, said he would double the money allocated under the law if elected. Like Mr. Kucinich, several of the candidates, including Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, linked more money for education to an exit from the war in Iraq, a step they all favor.

“People are always asking how we are going to pay for education, but they never ask how we are going to pay for the war, and yet education is the most important thing our country does,” Mr. Richardson told the delegates.

Despite the denunciations of the law this week, all the candidates who were in a position to vote for the measure as members of Congress in 2001 did so: Sens. Clinton, Biden, and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, along with then-Sen. Edwards and Rep. Kucinich. At the time, Mr. Obama was a state senator in Illinois, while Mr. Richardson was not holding political office.

The law, which President Bush signed in January 2002, has been a sore spot with the 3.2-million member teachers’ union since its passage with wide bipartisan support. The NEA had little influence in shaping the legislation, which uses a system of sanctions to hold schools accountable for raising the achievement of their students, as measured by annual testing.

The candidates pledged that they, in contrast, would give teachers an ear in the White House and invite them in to shape education policies, especially on such matters as teacher pay. Mr. Richardson went one better and promised to put a teacher at the head of the U.S. Department of Education.

Sens. Clinton, Edwards, and Biden all endorsed smaller class sizes, a longtime policy favorite of the NEA. And every Democratic candidate spoke in favor of more early-childhood education, saying that children from disadvantaged homes and neighborhoods must come to kindergarten better prepared to learn. The NEA endorses early-childhood education as part of its remedy for closing achievement gaps.

Shy on Pay

The Democratic candidates also touted across-the-board salary increases for teachers, a priority for the teachers’ union, though none specified how much leverage a president could expect to have in a matter that is almost entirely within the authority of state governments and local school boards. Most also weighed in on the need to provide teachers with more professional development and with new roles that would help them earn more, such as mentors to beginning teachers.

But they approached other departures from the traditional pay schedules based on seniority and academic degrees somewhat gingerly. Sen. Clinton, Mr. Edwards, and Gov. Richardson all mentioned the need to pay teachers “incentives” to work in schools, usually with poor and minority students, that struggle to get and keep skilled and experienced teachers—a position within the limits of NEA policy. But they mostly dodged the issue of pay for performance in the classroom, which the national union has consistently rejected. Mr. Huckabee in an interview after his speech said such experiments were worth trying, and Mr. Obama broached the possibility of paying teachers for favorable reviews from specially trained peers before emphasizing he would listen to teachers on the matter.

“I do think there should be ways to work with NEA,” he added in the brief question-and-answer session that followed each candidate’s speech. “There should be ways to measure [classroom] success and get compensation for that.”

Candidates who told the teachers that they have, in effect, been made scapegoats for poor student achievement brought many delegates to their feet. The teachers cheered, too, when the Democratic hopefuls said that struggling schools needed help, not labeling and shame.

“Instead of penalizing schools, why not invest in schools?” said Sen. Dodd. “The system is absolutely backwards.”

In the months ahead, the NEA will compile a list of “acceptable” candidates, and some state affiliates will ultimately recommend a single name in one or both parties to their members. The national union has often declined to make a single recommendation for a party’s candidate, but it could do so, according to Karen White, the NEA’s director of campaigns and elections.

Ms. White said the decision was up to President Reg Weaver, who will be interviewing candidates with an eye to that possibility.

Internal Politics

Not all the politics at the NEA convention was national. With elections for president and vice president of the national union a year away, candidates for those offices got an early start on their campaigns by announcing at the end of the gathering, as is traditional for front-runners.

As expected, the current vice president, Dennis Van Roekel, who formerly led the NEA’s Arizona affiliate, declared for president. And Lily Eskelsen, the current secretary-treasurer, said she would seek the vice president’s office.

Ms. Eskelsen’s move opens up her position in 2008. Outgoing executive committee members Becky Pringle of Pennsylvania and Marsha Smith of Maryland said they would run for secretary-treasurer. The office is especially important because it often leads, eventually, to the presidency.

Candidates have until next April to file.

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