Educators slam pro-segregation ruling

PHILADELPHIA — The No Child Left Behind Act and the Supreme Court rejection of school desegregation programs drew harsh criticism July 3 as 9,000 teachers and other school workers opened the National Education Association’s Representative Assembly here. The four-day conference met under the slogan “Great public schools, a basic right for every child.”

The NEA calls its assembly the largest democratically elected deliberative body in the United States and one of the largest in the world.

The delegates heard NEA President Reg Weaver and candidates for U.S. president blast the Bush administration’s education policies and call for increased funding for public schools.

In his keynote Weaver proposed an “economic Bill of Rights for the nation’s children including universal early childhood education, reduced class size, well paid educators, equal educational opportunities for all, including English language learners, and multiple measures of student learning instead of the increasing reliance on ‘one size fits all’ multiple choice tests.”

He said the Supreme Court ruling “will make it even harder to reach the goal of equal educational opportunity” for all children. The NEA should “put a call out” to concerned organizations to develop a response to the court’s action.

Delegates from Louisville, Ky., and Seattle, the cities whose school integration plans were overturned by the Supreme Court, called the ruling “sad” and “mind-boggling.”

Brent McKim, president of the Jefferson County, Ky., Education Association (which includes Louisville) told the World, “It’s a sad day for public education. It’s a tremendous setback for school districts that seek to integrate their schools so all students can succeed.” The Jefferson County district, he said, hopefully would have the “wherewithal” to move to an income-based assignment plan that could promote integration, but he said even that would face major political obstacles.

Wendy Kimball, Seattle Education Association president, said she found it “mind-boggling” that the court would take a position that essentially says “separate but equal is appropriate.”

The June 28 Supreme Court ruling struck at the essence of the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which found “separate but equal” schools unconstitutional. Kimball said the issues of inequality and separation that led to the Brown decision have not yet been resolved in many urban school districts. Seattle’s limited a program was based on a simple premise: that a student’s race could be a “tiebreaker” when deciding who got the last slots available at some high schools. This policy, she said, while it may not have addressed the basis of unequal resources, did make it possible for young people to attend schools with a diverse student population.

The 3.2-million member NEA is not part of the AFL-CIO. Kimball told the World that her local was moving to work more closely with the state labor federation through the labor solidarity process — the result of an agreement at the national level that enables NEA locals to work directly with the AFL-CIO. She said her local felt that the support that labor could provide was necessary in order to change the funding structure for public education in Washington state. Currently the state has no income tax, and public education is funded entirely through the sales tax and a “regressive business tax.”

The NEA assembly was scheduled to hear from eight presidential candidates. On the opening day, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards echoed many of the themes that Weaver emphasized.

Clinton struck a responsive chord when she asked the teacher delegates how many of them had spent their own money for classroom supplies. She said the national average is $450 per teacher per year. Referring to high teacher burnout and turnover rates, especially among new teachers, Clinton said, “If you don’t pay people what they deserve, they get the idea pretty quickly, don’t they?”

The delegates also responded enthusiastically when Edwards called for creating a single equitable public school system in the U.S. instead of the two he said we have now — “one for the wealthy and one for everybody else.” Edwards gave credit to the labor movement as the “greatest anti-poverty program in American history.” He told the delegates, “If somebody can join the Republican Party by signing a card, any worker in America should be able to join a union by doing just that.” He said that, if elected, he intended to push for a minimum wage of $9.50 an hour.

In his keynote address, Weaver roused the delegates with a brief history of the struggle for universal education and the role played by the NEA during its 150 years. The organization was founded here by 43 teachers in August 1857.

His vigorous call for resistance to the current threats to that legacy brought the delegates to their feet when he said, “It’s time for action — we’ve had enough studies.”