MIAMI -- Blasting federal and state leaders for ignoring the physical needs of children, the head of the nation's largest teachers union called yesterday for the U.S. government to embrace a "Bill of Rights" for youngsters.
The five-point plan advocated by National Education Association President Keith Geiger is designed to ensure that youngsters are given food, medical care and shelter so they are healthy enough to learn.
"The United States is at a crossroads," Mr. Geiger told 8,000 delegates at the NEA's annual meeting. "It cannot continue to be the 911 emergency number for the rest of the world and refuse to be 911 for its own children. Our children are dialing 911 daily and nobody is answering."
The NEA represents 2 million educators, from elementary teachers to university professors and some of those studying to be teachers. Mr. Geiger's keynote address focused on the problem of needy children and families, and on what he said were the failures of legislators to provide for them.
Mr. Geiger said he would send his Bill of Rights to President Bush. It calls for the government to make sure all children have enough food and medical care, a secure place to live, the right to a good education, and freedom from abuse, violence and discrimination.
It was one of six national education goals agreed upon nearly two years ago by Mr. Bush and the nation's 50 governors.
"Children should not be at themercy of bake sales, raffles, handouts or charity auctions to meet their basic needs," he said. "These rights are within our capacity to deliver. They are not outrageous or unreasonable expectations."
After introducing the Bill of Rights, Mr. Geiger took a few shots at government, saying leaders had their priorities in the wrong places.
"The U.S. government has been an absentee parent for America's needy children," he said. "Does priority mean Congress putting up a half a million dollars for Lawrence Welk's birthplace? . . .Think what half a million dollars would mean to schools in North Dakota."
Mr. Geiger also said he believes that schools are improving, but that the quality of childhood is not. He said that the NEA would "continue to speak for children" and that it would try to pressure lawmakers into "putting some truth behind the talk."
"In other words, put up or shut up," he said.
In contrast to the Bush administration, which has stressed accountability as the key to better schools, Mr. Geiger said that problem families should get more attention in the effort to reform education.
"Problems in families mean problems in schools. The problems reach into every classroom, no matter the income level of the families, no matter whether urban, suburban or rural," he said.
Asked later by reporters how he thought Mr. Bush would respond to his call for children's rights, Mr. Geiger said, "I suspect he will say he is very, very supportive, and then indicate that it is not a federal responsibility."