Teachers and Republicans Seek Common Ground in N.Y.C.

By Michelle R. Davis & Sean Cavanagh — September 22, 2004 6 min read
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The Bush administration’s record on education continues to be a polarizing issue for many teachers, who were represented last week on the floor of the Republican National Convention as well as among the protesters out in the streets.

Removed from the carefully scripted stagecraft of the convention, the National Education Association, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, was trying to narrow the divide between its members and the Republican Party.

The 2.7 million-member union staged a luncheon early in the week with Republican members of Congress, in an apparent effort to cool some of the rhetoric that has hurtled back and forth between GOP leaders and the union. The NEA has sharply criticized the No Child Left Behind Act, which President Bush and his allies are citing repeatedly as one of his major accomplishments.

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See the accompanying excerpts,

Republican Platform on Education

Moreover, the union—continuing its tradition of strong support for Democratic candidates—has endorsed Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, Mr. Bush’s opponent in the November election.

“If in fact there’s no conversation, and no communication, there’s never a chance of coming together,” NEA President Reg Weaver said after the event. “This is a part of who we are and what we do. Many people don’t see that. They think we do it only with Democrats.”

Yet Mr. Weaver acknowledged that when it came to his union’s relationship with the Bush administration itself, any efforts to improve relations would prove “a challenge.” Earlier this year, Secretary of Education Rod Paige, who spoke at the convention on Aug. 31, angered many union members by likening the NEA to a “terrorist organization.”

The secretary later apologized, but he has voiced frustration over what he sees as the union’s habit of distorting the facts about the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act, which Mr. Kerry and other leading Democrats voted for.

“If you do not agree lock, stock, and barrel with the current administration, you are not seen as being in good stead,” Mr. Weaver said. “There’s very little room for dissent or different points of view.”

The Education Party?

But inside Madison Square Garden here, several convention participants said they believed the Republican Party’s record on education—particularly in backing the No Child Left Behind Act—appealed to classroom instructors, many of whom are suspicious of the motives of teachers’ unions.

“I don’t belong to the union, because they don’t stick to education,” said Karoline Bekeris, an elementary school teacher and Republican delegate from Sitka, Alaska. “They get into all kinds of issues that don’t have anything to do with what goes on in schools, but [instead] are all about politics.”

While she said that Mr. Paige’s gibe at the NEA was “over the top,” Ms. Bekeris also said that the secretary’s statements reflected a belief among many classroom teachers that the unions are resistant to reform.

Although President Bush had plenty of support from Republican teachers within the convention hall, the resentment among teachers’ union members was evident outside Madison Square Garden throughout the week.

The 100,000-member Unified Federation of Teachers took part in a number of street protests outside the convention center throughout the week. The union is the New York City affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, which has endorsed Mr. Kerry’s candidacy.

On Sept. 1, uft members rallied alongside union truck drivers, sheet metal workers, mechanics, and others along a heavily barricaded street south of the Garden. Several teachers interviewed said they were concerned about jobs being lost nationally and about the impact of the No Child Left Behind Act.

The president’s record on education is “abysmal, destructive, and false,” said Eve Packer, a special education teacher in the New York City public schools. Standing in a crowd that stretched for several blocks on Eighth Avenue, Ms. Packer, who has taught for 21 years, accused Mr. Bush of boasting about the No Child Left Behind Act without doing enough to make it work.

“He promises all kinds of things, and not only does he not deliver, many of his promises prove destructive,” she said. Under the law, she said, “testing is the criteria, instead of individualized education for students, which is child-based, and teacher-based.”

The law “micromanages every minute of every day,” said another protester, Renee L. Washington, an elementary school teacher in the borough of Brooklyn. “Children don’t have the time to engage in the things they need to. It’s testing, testing, testing.”

The NEA had an estimated 275 delegates and alternates at the Democratic convention in Boston in July; only 25 of its members were delegates or alternates to the Republican event.

Advice on ‘No Child’ Law

Jonathan K. Hage, who attended the GOP convention as a member of Educators for Bush, a panel of school officials advising the president’s re-election campaign, said the convention gave Secretary Paige and others an opportunity to talk past the critics and reach educators directly.

“Most teachers are not interested in the politics of education, but in the action of education, and that’s where [Mr. Paige] has been the strongest,” said Mr. Hage, the chairman of Charter Schools USA, a charter-management company based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

In addition to Mr. Paige, the speakers on the convention’s second night included first lady Laura Bush, a former teacher and school librarian who called education “my passion” and argued that her husband has devoted considerable federal funding to the No Child Left Behind Act—a point Democrats and teachers’ union officials have disputed.

Last week, NEA officials tried to work around those disagreements in other ways. The union took out advertisements in the convention edition of the National Journal, a magazine of politics and government, throughout the week. The ads thanked Republicans in Congress who support legislation that would renew tax benefits for teachers, and praised them for pushing to include more funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is undergoing reauthorization.

The NEA also sought to reach out to Republicans at a lunch meeting Aug. 30 at the posh Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan. Twelve GOP lawmakers were invited to the event, some because the union has endorsed them for re-election; others were asked to come because they had worked on legislation union leaders deemed important.

Some members of Congress in attendance said the teachers’ union had the potential to offer advice on constructive changes to the No Child Left Behind Act.

The law “can be dealt with as a partisan issue, in which case there’s no chance for reform, or as a bipartisan issue,” said Rep. Jim Leach of Iowa. He called the NEA “one of the bellwether professional organizations in America.”

“I would hope there could be an enormous thaw” in relations between Republicans and the NEA, the congressman added. “There’s nothing more foolhardy than to have contentiousness between a major political party and a professional organization, especially one that is central to education.”

Rep. Phil English of Pennsylvania, who helped draft the education planks in the Republican Party platform, called the meeting “extremely constructive.” Many of the refinements union officials spoke about making to the No Child Left Behind Act at the gathering made sense and would be appealing to congressional Republicans, he said.

“They were arguing effectively for a bottom-up rather than top-down approach to education reform,” Mr. English said.

“We need to hear the criticism coming in from the people in the field who are engaged in this area,” he added. “No Child Left Behind is better than the status quo, but . we’re going to have to make some changes. And I think the NEA’s contribution on that is very valuable.”

“If the president is re-elected, it’s going to be crucial for moderate Republicans to build a bridge between the administration and the education community,” Rep. English said. “We have to build those ties.”

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