Thousands ‘Party’ Down to Promote Public Schools

By Bess Keller — October 01, 2004 8 min read
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If the nation’s schools are threatened by low expectations and too much of the status quo, the 20 people gathered in Jane and Thomas Dugdale’s family room in this leafiest of suburbs didn’t see those particular dangers.

Rather, the guests posited, menace lurks in the current testing mania or in unfunded mandates from Washington or in political leaders unwilling to shut down a war to open up more classrooms.

The teachers, parents, and community leaders didn’t quite agree on the exact causes of trouble. But like their counterparts at some 3,800 near-simultaneous “house parties” across the country last week, many were willing to call on their federal lawmakers to put more money into education.

“It’s voices like this that have to be heard,” declared Becky Pringle, a member of the National Education Association’s executive board, who was attending the party here in Bryn Mawr, Pa. “We need your help.”

Coalition at Work

The parties, perhaps three-quarters of them organized by teachers such as Jane Dugdale, are the main election-season event of a new coalition of groups trying to raise the profile of education at all levels of government. The liberal-leaning coalition, officially the National Mobilization for Great Public Schools, includes the NEA; the political-advocacy group MoveOn.org; the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or ACORN; the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute; and the NAACP National Voter Fund.

Though the coalition is not endorsing candidates or allying itself with a party, most of the groups have been critical of the No Child Left Behind Act, the centerpiece of President Bush’s education agenda, and some support the Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts. Democratic Party strategists welcome efforts to focus voters’ attention on domestic issues, which polls suggest offer an edge for the challenger over the incumbent.

Organizers of the national event stressed that the parties were nonpartisan and issue-oriented, designed to draw in people who might not agree with liberal positions. Still, Kerry-Edwards elections signs were pitched on the front lawns at some party venues.

Another goal of the parties plainly was to energize those already inclined to favor additional spending on education and in accord with the NEA’s stance that the sweeping education law badly needs “fixing and funding.”

Just a Beginning?

Critics of the coalition and the NEA scoffed at the notion that the house parties could be nonpartisan.

Calling the coalition “a collection of radical-liberal interest groups,” U.S. Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, charged in a press release that the group was spreading “outrageous” falsehoods about the No Child Left Behind Act. He said that the coalition’s true purposes were to lower education standards and oppose “ ‘pay-for-performance’ initiatives that would reward good teachers while identifying poor ones.”

Mr. Boehner specifically took to task a claim in the seven-minute video played at most of the parties that the Bush administration had “underfunded” the No Child Left Behind Act by $17 billion in the past three years.

If the same definition of underfunding had been applied to the Democratic budget proposal endorsed by the NEA this year, Mr. Boehner asserted, that spending plan would have come up $5 billion short.

Other supporters of the Bush administration also heaped criticism on the event, sending out press releases in advance of the Sept. 22 get-togethers.

“NEA claims to be the nation’s champion for public education, but its leaders continue to use teacher dues to promote an extremist political platform that often has little to do with America’s schools,” charged Don Soifer, a spokesman for the Lexington Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank in Arlington, Va.

Actions widely recommended at the parties included signing petitions seeking more education funding, calling members of Congress on Sept. 29, and promoting voter registration. Most guests also signed in, creating a national e-mail list for organizers of the movement.

Robert Borosage, a co-director of the Campaign for America’s Future, the liberal think tank that first floated the education house-party idea, said the time to form a movement devoted to education and the needs of young people is now.

“With projected cuts [to education] in the next five years, education must be a much higher priority at the federal level,” he said in an interview. “This is the beginning of a process, not the end of it.”

‘Taking Action’

The education parties, which took place in every state and the District of Columbia, ranged from a few people to upwards of 80, and were held in private homes, school buildings, churches, and other locations, according to NEA spokes man Daniel Kaufman. A more exact count of participants should be available this week, he said.

In Iowa, house-party organizers called upon a prominent political figure to help them spark interest: Christie Vilsack, the wife of Gov. Tom Vilsack, a Democrat. Ms. Vilsack offered the couple’s home in Mount Pleasant, population 8,000, for a party that drew about two dozen guests.

Most were teachers or their spouses, and many knew Ms. Vilsack, herself a former teacher, as friends or neighbors.

“If we don’t let people at the national level know how we feel about education, we’re never going to accomplish anything,” Ms. Vilsack said during a break from her duties as hostess. “This isn’t just about talking about this issue; this is about taking action after we’ve talked.”

To that end, Ms. Vilsack laid out voter-registration forms on a tabletop in her home, and later asked guests to urge state lawmakers, with whom her husband is often wrangling, as well as federal legislators, to take education issues more seriously. The governor did not attend the affair.

At Ms. Vilsack’s party and others in Iowa, several teachers said the frustration of the No Child Left Behind Act’s testing and accountability mandates had particular resonance in a state that has typically prized local control in setting curricula and measuring student progress.

“The idea that we somehow weren’t accountable—that bothers us a lot,” said Bob Gilchrist, a retired teacher and former president of the Iowa Education Association, who hosted a party at his home in Marion, Iowa. “We’re saying, ‘Well, wait a minute. What have we been doing wrong? ’ ”

Some Iowa party-goers, however, were not swayed by the swings taken at the federal law.

Carmen Riensche, who is in her second year as a middle school teacher in Mount Pleasant, said she was leaning toward voting for President Bush in November. Despite the criticism that emerged that night at the party she attended, Ms. Riensche said she was confident that the president was willing to make adjustments to the No Child Left Behind Act.

She also said she was not put off by the fact that so many people at the party seemed to be Kerry supporters. “I came here to find out more about what the community is saying about education and No Child Left Behind,” she said. “And I think I did that.”


Party-goers in rural Oxford, N.C., about an hour north of Raleigh, received tiny paper American flags when they arrived at New Grassy Creek Baptist Church for the event.

“Granville County schools are doing pretty good compared to some of the others,” June Smith, the organizer, told participants. “But are the Granville County schools underfunded? Are they overcrowded? … Are there children being left behind?”

Many of the two dozen guests agreed that the schools in the 8,700-student district are underfinanced, that teachers leave too frequently, and that students’ lessons are limited to what’s on the state test.

Ms. Smith, a reading coach in a nearby district and the former head of the teachers’ union there, said she wanted to rally her family and neighbors around an action plan on behalf of public schools. “We’re going to try to put in office some people who are going to put education as a priority.”

She urged her audience to register to vote and to persuade others to do so. Then, she said, they should get in touch with their representatives in Washington.

Addie Harris took the message to heart. The mother of a 3rd grader and an infant, Ms. Harris came to the meeting to find out more about how the federal law is affecting schools.

“My child is going to school in a trailer,” she said. “Her school is a good school, … but they are teaching the children what’s on the test. They don’t have time to work with kids who are failing or to work with kids who need to move forward.”

NEA President Reg Weaver went West for the festivities. He said he was in Los Angeles, at a gathering co-hosted by the actress Helen Hunt and the film producers Julie Bergman Sender and Stuart Sender in an effort to reach out to “people you would not normally have an opportunity to meet.”

The party, featuring valet parking, bartenders, and gourmet hors d’oeuvres, was held at the Senders’ residence just south of the famed Hollywood sign.

People in entertainment, Mr. Weaver said, are an untapped source of support for public education, and involving them brings a “much better chance at having kids in good public schools” because they can influence public opinion.

With the fervor of a preacher, Mr. Weaver used the event to tell about 80 guests about the NEA’s take on the No Child Left Behind Act, which has been overwhelmingly critical.

Some people at the party wore anti-Bush T-shirts, and the tone of the evening was clearly pro-Kerry.

“This president and this administration are not doing what it could or what it should do in regards to No Child Left Behind,” Ms. Sender said.

Back here in Bryn Mawr, the well-heeled Philadelphia suburb, the discussion ranged widely, with no explicit mentions of the presidential candidates. Guests praised the five schools that make up the 3,500-student Radnor Township district, and some fretted that the latest overlay of tests would harm them. Others wondered how far money alone could go toward improving troubled schools in nearby Philadelphia.

“To say you’ll put money in and get good results is as foolish as saying you’ll put testing in and get good results,” said parent Roy Perry.

But we know what to do with the money, several teachers protested, mentioning early-childhood education, small class sizes, and teacher quality as spending priorities.

In the end, Anna Dugdale, a teacher like her mother, Jane, asked, “When will we get together again?” The question hung in the air as the guests left for home.

Staff Writer Sean Cavanagh reported from Marion and Mount Pleasant, Iowa; Assistant Editor Linda Jacobson reported from Los Angeles; and Associate Editor Kathleen Kennedy Manzo reported from Oxford, N.C.


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