Teaching Profession

Furor Lingers Over Paige’s Union Remark

March 03, 2004 4 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
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.”

Related Tags:

Commenting has been disabled on edweek.org effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Teaching Webinar
What’s Next for Teaching and Learning? Key Trends for the New School Year
The past 18 months changed the face of education forever, leaving teachers, students, and families to adapt to unprecedented challenges in teaching and learning. As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
How Data and Digital Curriculum Can Drive Personalized Instruction
As we return from an abnormal year, it’s an educator’s top priority to make sure the lessons learned under adversity positively impact students during the new school year. Digital curriculum has emerged from the pandemic
Content provided by Kiddom
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Equity & Diversity Webinar
Leadership for Racial Equity in Schools and Beyond
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to reveal systemic racial disparities in educational opportunity, there are revelations to which we can and must respond. Through conscientious efforts, using an intentional focus on race, school leaders can
Content provided by Corwin

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Reported Essay Teachers Are Not OK, Even Though We Need Them to Be
The pandemic has put teachers through the wringer. Administrators must think about staff well-being differently.
6 min read
Conceptual Illustration
Pep Montserrat for Education Week
Teaching Profession We Feel Your Grief: Remembering the 1,000 Plus Educators Who've Died of COVID-19
The heartbreaking tally of lives lost to the coronavirus continues to rise and take a steep toll on school communities.
3 min read
090321 1000 Educators Lost BS
Education Week
Teaching Profession Letter to the Editor Educators Have a Responsibility to Support the Common Good
A science teacher responds to another science teacher's hesitation to take the COVID-19 vaccine.
1 min read
Teaching Profession With Vaccine Mandates on the Rise, Some Teachers May Face Discipline
With a vaccine now fully FDA-approved, more states and districts will likely require school staff get vaccinated. The logistics are tricky.
9 min read
Grace John, who works at a school in San Lorenzo, gets a COVID-19 shot at a mobile vaccination clinic run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the state in Hayward, Calif., on Feb. 19, 2021. California will become the first state in the nation to require all teachers and school staff to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing. The statewide vaccine mandate for K-12 educators comes as schools return from summer break amid growing concerns of the highly contagious delta variant.
Grace John, who works at a school in San Lorenzo, gets a COVID-19 shot at a mobile vaccination clinic in Hayward, Calif. California is among those states requiring all teachers and school staff to get vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID-19 testing.
Terry Chea/AP