WASHINGTON - Breaking from a longtime consensus, stretching back to the 1800s, by all political parties in favor of universal public schooling, the modern Republicans - presumed presidential nominee Mitt Romney included - have become anti-public education, Democratic Vice President Joseph Biden says.
In his July 3 speech to the National Education Association's Representative Assembly - the 3-million-member union's 9,000-delegate annual meeting - Biden admitted he was puzzled about why the Republicans have performed this about-face.
But, citing layoffs in public schools in GOP-run states, cuts in college funding, GOP opposition to lower interest rates on college student loans and its plans to cut Pell Grants, which students use for tuition, he said there's no doubt of the GOP's course.
The delegates, meeting in Washington, gave Biden an enthusiastic reception, breaking into cheers and laughter many times and chanting "Four more years!" after he concluded his half-hour address. Their backing was no great surprise: Last year's NEA Representative Assembly, meeting in Democratic President Barack Obama's hometown of Chicago, made NEA the first union to endorse the Obama-Biden ticket for re-election.
Supporting public education includes more funding for K-12 schools, college affordability, reasonable class sizes, "and demanding high standards from every student because everyone benefits when you set high standards," Biden said. For more than a century, he added, the GOP backed those goals.
And while he did not say so, raising standards was a key piece of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, shoved through Congress by GOP President George W. Bush. Unions, including NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, have had their problems with NCLB. It was designed to set up public schools to fail, says AFT, and it was underfunded, says NEA.
"But this is not your father's Republican Party," the vice president said. "They want to take Title I money to the states and use it to boost enrollment in private schools." Title I, the biggest federal education aid program, is supposed to funnel funds to schools in low-income, low-revenue areas that need it the most to help educate kids.
"Romney's a good man, and I assume he cares as much about the education system as I do," Biden added. "But he doesn't know about you" he told the teachers and other school workers NEA represents. "I think they - the Republicans - don't understand why you chose to teach in the first place. It certainly wasn't for the money."
Instead, teachers teach, he said, because they love kids. That's why they cancel doctors' appointments to make sure their students get home safely, spend for school supplies out of their own pockets and spend hundreds of unpaid hours on everything from crafting lesson plans to supervising after-school activities.
"They just don't get it. They imply that you're selfish, that you have an easy ride and that you're not part of the community," Biden said of the GOP, blasting that attitude as wrong.
But the Republicans' attitude about teachers, he told the crowd, is part of its larger hostility to the middle class - a constant Obama-Biden campaign theme this year.
That hostility, the vice president declared, appeared in GOP opposition to Obama's stimulus law, which kept 300,000 school workers on the job, in GOP delays in approving infrastructure bills, in GOP refusal to extend the stimulus - saving those 300,000 education jobs - and in Romney's tax cut proposals.
The presumed Republican nominee, a former venture capitalist, instead wants to take dollars that would go for education and not only spend them to make the Bush tax cuts for the rich permanent, but to add "another $2 trillion in tax cuts for people making $1 million a year" each, Biden said.
"And one Republican congressman compares student loans to 'Stage 3 cancer of socialism,'" Biden said. "Even Romney said, 'I'm not pleased with plans to save 240,000 teachers' jobs.'"
Put it together, Biden declared, and the GOP has turned against public schools.
Teachers interviewed said they would take that message back home.
Diane Slivka, a 1st grade teacher from Sturgeon Bay, Wis., where right wing GOP Gov. Scott Walker yanked unionists' collective bargaining rights last year, said she would just ask non-teachers to consider "who you would want keeping records at your bank or providing your health care" when present students grow up: Educated kids or uneducated kids. Walker also cut millions in school aid in 2011, while handing out tax breaks for corporations.
"He was excellent and he made the point that in teaching, we touch lives," added Freeport, Ill., high school teacher Kelly Everding. "That's what Biden and Obama support, and that's what I'll tell my neighbors one-on-one."
The convention ran through July 5.
Photo: Vice President Joe Biden speaks to the 2012 National Educational Association annual meeting, July 3, in Washington. Evan Vucci/AP