Teaching Profession

Rep. George Miller and the NEA: Round Two

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 30, 2009 3 min read
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I’ve covered enough hearings on the Hill to know that they can range in interest from complete snooze-fests to eyebrow-raising soap operas.

Fortunately, today’s hearing on the teacher-equity provisions in the economic-stimulus bill and the No Child Left Behind Act ended up being pretty engaging—at least to those of you who, like me, are unabashed nerds about the complicated politics of crafting teacher policy.

First off, most of what was discussed has been discussed before, and it’s certainly graced many a page of Education Week. Witnesses, for instance, talked about teacher-student data firewalls, about the inadequacy of evaluation systems, and about the teacher-distribution requirements in the stimulus.

Republican members again pushed for the Teacher Incentive Fund, a federal performance-pay program: Rep. Tom Price, R-Ga., a witness, introduced today—for the third time—an authorization of the TIF program, which has been funded since 2006 but never set down in law.

Democrats talked a lot about teacher mentoring, and they directed most of their questions to National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel while dodging the controversial statements about collective-bargaining contracts made by several of the other witnesses.

All of that sounds strictly by the books, right? Well, what ended up making this hearing particularly interesting was that it pushed to the surface the very complicated relationship between House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., and the NEA.

Fairly early on in this hearing, Rep. Miller made a particular point to note two items in Van Roekel’s testimony, which was mostly drawn from the union’s new report. In that report, as I noted here, the NEA said it would support union locals through the TIF. It was the first time the union ever really affirmed the program, which requires student achievement to be considered in making bonus-pay decisions.

Van Roekel’s testimony also stated that the union would request every affiliate enter into a “memorandum of understanding” with districts to waive contract language that could prohibit the distribution of effective teachers.

You may remember the Great Performance-Pay Smackdown of 2007, when Miller and then-NEA President Reg Weaver during a hearing traded barbs about whether or not the NEA had reneged on its support for a performance-pay program.

Today, Chairman Miller made it very clear that he considers the NEA as being on record as saying it will support TIF and the waiver of some contract elements.

As if to underscore the point, Mr. Miller reiterated to reporters after the hearing that he views the NEA as having affirmatively shifted its stance in those areas. “I think it’s a major step for the NEA; I think it’s very constructive,” he said. “They have reached out to the future on this discussion and this subject.” And in a release from the committee, he added that the NEA testimony came as “a very important signal from NEA that represents a significant departure from their historical position.”

At another point in the hearing, in response to questions from the committee members, Van Roekel said he didn’t think it was appropriate to use “a single test score” in making decisions about teachers. The phrase really seemed to raise the hackles of Rep. Miller, who jumped in with this speech:

“There is nothing in the Race to the Top that says that a test score would have to be the sole factor in evaluations, so let’s clear the air on that. It’s simply not the fact,” Miller expounded. “There was nothing in the TEACH Act [a 2005 Miller-introduced bill], nothing in the [2007 NCLB] discussion draft. .... I think that it’s a real disservice to the administration [to claim otherwise] because Education Secretary Arne Duncan is trying to broaden that discussion.”

Now, to be fair to the NEA, a number of Miller’s own committee members, both Republican and Democrat, also talked about the use of test scores in evaluations as if they were the only factor.

Still, the larger point stands. And that is that after everything that went down in 2007, George Miller wants the NEA to back up words with real action.

Photos: House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., left; National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel, right.

Photo Credit: Andrew Councill for Education Week

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teacher Beat blog.