Teachers: Leave this man behind

Education Secretary Rod Paige should step down for attaching the “terrorist” label to 2.7 million schoolteachers and their union, the National Education Association, said Reg Weaver, NEA president.

The nation’s hardworking teachers came home from their classrooms Feb. 23 to hear themselves and their professional organization “insulted beyond repair” by President Bush’s top education official “with words filled with hatred,” said Weaver, who demanded an apology from Bush. Weaver’s comments were part of a firestorm of protest ignited by the revelation of Paige’s shocking characterization.

“Shame on you,” wrote one New Jersey educator in an e-mail to Paige. “Think about your teachers and think about where you are now. Trust me, you didn’t get there alone and it wasn’t a terrorist who helped you.”

AFL-CIO President John Sweeney charged, “The Bush administration would like to label all those who disagree with it as ‘terrorists.’”

Paige’s remarks, made at a meeting of the nation’s governors, came in response to the NEA’s hard-hitting – and increasingly effective – criticisms of the centerpiece of this administration’s education policy, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). The NEA has aired a series of radio commercials (available on its website www.nea.org) exposing NCLB’s devastating impact. Whole states, from Utah to Virginia, are rebelling against the destructive provisions of the heavy-handed law.

According to the NEA, a January survey found 63 percent of registered voters now believe the federal government should increase funding for public schools, and 9 of 10 wanted schools assessed on a number of criteria, not just standardized tests.

NCLB passed in 2002, replacing the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act, defining the federal government’s oversight and financial assistance to public schools. Critics charge that through NCLB the federal government forces many requirements upon school districts, but does not fund them. The NEA points out the Bush administration fell $32 billion short of funding NCLB in 2003, leaving local school districts, which already bear over 90 percent of education costs, to pick up the slack.

Eight other education programs, including Head Start, Pell Grants, and Title 1 funds for disadvantaged students, came up a total of $49 billion short. The total of the two shortfalls is eerily close to the $87 billion allotted for prosecuting the war in Iraq.

“We will continue to insist on fixing the law’s inadequate funding and unworkable rules that stand in the way of a quality education for all children,” Weaver said in a statement Feb. 24. “If the Bush administration cannot work with the public school employees who educate these children every day, then it is time to find new leadership who can.”

The much-touted NCLB was a “set-up” to set the stage for turning public education over to private corporations to make a profit, Steve Wollmer, spokesperson for New Jersey Educational Association, said. “It isn’t about leaving no child behind,” he told the World. “It’s about leaving schools behind to make way for vouchers.”

Wollmer says the law’s primary intent is to create a massive failure rate and public hysteria. The failure rate is being created by the reliance on standardized tests as the sole measure of student achievement, and punitive measures against schools that don’t meet rigid yearly improvement requirements.

Wollmer also pointed to the law’s impact on teachers. “Creative, talented teachers are leaving in droves,” he said. “They don’t want to be robots who teach kids to take tests.”

Classroom teachers are livid about being called terrorists and have been bombarding Paige and Bush with emails full of outrage.

“If you feel threatened by responsible educational organizations fighting for legislative change in Congress then I suggest you resign immediately. Your contempt of working people is symbolic of an administration that is engaged in an all-out attack on children in need,“” wrote one teacher.

“If the administration’s goal was to wake people up, they have succeeded,” NJEA’s Wollmer said. Paige’s attack has had “an incredibly galvanizing effect.” In an optimistic look toward the November presidential election, Wollmer recalled the fate of the last candidate who “tried to drive a wedge” between teachers and their unions. In accepting the Republican nomination in 1996, Bob Dole threatened, “To the teachers union, I say I will disregard your political power for the sake of parents and children.”

Dole didn’t make it to the White House, Wollmer pointed out, “and now we see him on TV hawking Viagra.”

The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org.