At 150, NEA faces tough education issues

PHILADELPHIA — The nation’s largest union, the National Education Association, returns to the city where it was founded in 1857 to hold its annual meeting and representative assembly, June 30-July 5.

Led by its president, Reg Weaver, over 9,000 delegates will debate hot issues swirling around public education in the United States and set the union’s agenda for the coming year. They will elect the leadership of this 3.2-million-member union of teachers, higher education faculty, education support professionals, school administrators, retired educators and students preparing to become teachers.

Eight presidential candidates will address the gathering — Democrats Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Chris Dodd, John Edwards, Dennis Kucinich, Barack Obama and Bill Richardson, and a sole Republican, Mike Huckabee.

On July 5 the NEA will honor House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) as its 2007 Friend of Education.

A major topic will be the No Child Left Behind Act, the Bush administration’s controversial education reform program up for congressional reauthorization this year. The NEA has been an ardent critic of No Child Left Behind since it became law in 2002.

“The law is not working,” said Weaver. “After five years’ experience under the law, NEA members, America’s frontline educators, have identified many flaws, problems and student needs that must be addressed.”

The NEA’s stated goal is “to improve the law by substantially correcting its flaws and adding positive provisions.” Weaver said the reauthorization process opens the door to a broad national discussion on education, not only about changes and improvements to No Child Left Behind but also on how to transform education so that every child can attend a great public school.

Along with the American Federation of Teachers, the National Council of Churches, the NAACP and many other organizations, the NEA has called for full funding of NCLB. This year, the estimated funding gap between what was promised for NCLB programs and what the states will actually receive is $15.8 billion. The cumulative funding gap over the past five years is an astronomical $56.1 billion. That is why No Child Left Behind is called an unfunded mandate.

In March, the NEA asked Congress to use more than test scores to measure student learning and school performance. The NEA opposes the punitive way test scores are being used by the U.S. Department of Education.

Currently, every school is required to make “adequate yearly progress” by having its students pass 37 benchmarks during the school year. If it fails even one benchmark, the school is labeled “in need of improvement” and listed as a failing school. Schools labeled “failing” may be turned into charter schools, privatized or even closed. Students with disabilities and students who are English learners are tested along with all other students.

The NEA is asking for common-sense flexibility in testing and assessing student achievement. The union wants states, school districts and schools to involve teachers and other educators in the developing, implementing and refining standards, curriculum, assessments, accountability and improvement plans.

To increase the number of highly qualified teachers in our schools, especially schools in high poverty communities, the NEA wants the federal government to provide financial incentives to teachers who teach in hard-to-staff schools.

School workers here are members of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).

They are well aware that the city has been an “education experiment” for No Child Left Behind.

The School District of Philadelphia was taken over by the state in 2001, because it had a deficit. Former Gov. Tom Ridge tried to hire Edison Schools, Inc., to manage the school district, but protests forced a compromise. Edison Schools received 20 schools, while six other “education management organizations” received 25 schools, 21 schools were restructured and four became charter schools.

A five-member School Reform Commission (SRC) was appointed to manage the schools. But five years later, the Philadelphia School District now faces a $185 million deficit. The SRC said 170 positions will be eliminated to save the district $13.3 million annually. The SRC claims they are all administrative positions. But PFT Vice President Jerry Jordon said they include school psychologists who provide direct services to children.

At a press conference, organized by Parents United for Public Education and Youth United for Change outside school district offices last week, Michael Nutter, former city councilman and mayoral candidate, said the cuts include art, music, athletics, sports, librarians, nurses, counselors and other programs, and will devastate education reform efforts.