Teaching Profession

Furor Lingers Over Paige’s Union Remark

March 03, 2004 4 min read
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Rod Paige gestures last week in an interview with the Associated Press after his 'terrorist' remark.

Rod Paige gestures last week in an interview with the Associated Press after his “terrorist” remark.
—Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Secretary of Education Rod Paige’s reference last week to the National Education Association as a “terrorist organization” prompted calls by the union—and some others—for his resignation, though the White House made clear that no such action would be forthcoming.

President Bush has full confidence in his education secretary, said White House spokesman Scott McClellan, who referred to the remark as “inappropriate.” Noting that Mr. Paige had apologized, he added: “I think that issue has been addressed.”

Meeting privately with a group of governors at the White House on Feb. 23, Mr. Paige responded to a governor’s question by likening the nation’s largest teachers’ union to a terrorist organization because of its efforts to resist key provisions in the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Later that day, the apology Mr. Paige issued took a few more swipes at the union.

“It was an inappropriate choice of words to describe the obstructionist scare tactics the NEA’s Washington lobbyists have employed against No Child Left Behind’s historic education reforms,” he said. Mr. Paige said that during the meeting, he had emphasized that his remarks were not aimed at teachers. Even so, he said, “as one who grew up on the receiving end of insensitive remarks, I should have chosen my words better.”

Secretary Paige followed up with an op-ed column Feb. 27 in The Washington Post, in which he said he was “truly sorry for the hurt and confusion” his remark had caused, and re-emphasized that his frustration was aimed only at union leaders in Washington.

“I guess I was kind of surprised on one hand, but not surprised on the other hand,” said NEA President Reg Weaver when asked about the secretary’s label for the union, “because this is the tone that the administration has been using toward us for quite some time.”

“This time, he has gone overboard,” Mr. Weaver said.

He said his 2.7 million-member organization had received a big pile of e-mails from members upset over the matter.

The American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest teachers’ union, also condemned the remark, though Gayle Fallon, the president of that union’s Houston affiliate, suggested that those offended by Mr. Paige don’t know him very well.

“I probably know more about his views on labor than any other labor leader—local, state, or national,” said Ms. Fallon, who worked with Mr. Paige in his last job as Houston’s schools superintendent. “The man does not seriously consider labor unions to be terrorist organizations. He has a very quick and sarcastic sense of humor on occasion, when he thinks he’s among friends.”

She added, “I think he just forgot that in Washington politics, there are no friends.”

Secretary Paige’s comment wasn’t the first time he has openly attacked the NEA or other critics of the No Child Left Behind Act.

After the union last summer announced plans to file a lawsuit challenging the federal school-improvement statute, he said, “The NEA wants to assemble a coalition of the whining to hold kids back.”

In January, Mr. Paige likened the law’s opponents to those who resisted the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka ruling striking down racially segregated systems of public education.

“Those who fought against Brown were on the wrong side of history,” he said, “just as those who fight No Child Left Behind will be judged so.”

‘Hardball Tactics’?

For their part, the NEA and its affiliates have used strong rhetoric at times to describe the law, which President Bush has held up as one of his top domestic-policy accomplishments. A newsletter published last year by the Maine Education Association had a headline declaring that the law “stinks,” along with a cartoon of a skunk with a clothespin clamping its nose.

The Connecticut Education Association has begun running television commercials in opposition to the federal law. In a press release announcing those ads, the state affiliate’s president, Rosemary Coyle, said: “Are we going to allow irresponsible micromanagement by federal bureaucrats far removed from our communities to create havoc with our schools and children?”

The Wall Street Journal jumped into the fray with an editorial Feb. 25 arguing that Mr. Paige’s poor choice of words should not distract from his message.

“In political influence [the teachers unions] rank alongside the Teamsters, the AARP, and the [National Rifle Association],” the editorial said. “And they use the exact same hardball tactics to try to get what they want, which in their case is to preserve their monopoly on public education.”

Complaints about Secretary Paige’s remark didn’t come only from unions and teachers.

Speaking on the House floor, Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., called it “a hateful comment beneath the dignity of a Cabinet secretary,” and said Mr. Paige should resign.

James A. Fleming, the superintendent of the 50,000-student Capistrano Unified School District in Orange County, Calif., wrote Secretary Paige a letter expressing his dismay.

“A member of al-Qaida hijacks an airliner and flies a plane into the World Trade Center killing thousands of innocent people. That is a terrorist,” Mr. Fleming wrote. “Teachers throughout America who raise legitimate questions about the many untenable components of No Child Left Behind are not ‘terrorists.’”

“It is incumbent upon you to at least listen and consider what is being reported,” the superintendent said, “and most of all to not apply McCarthy-era politics to discredit justifiable critics.”

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