NEA plays Democratic role

EDUCATION BEAT

Union: Since its first presidential endorsement in the 1980 election, the group has used its considerable political influence on behalf of the party.

July 28, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WITH 275 National Education Association members spending part of their summer vacation as delegates to the Democratic National Convention, it wasn't surprising to see NEA President Reg Weaver on the list of speakers last evening.

The NEA wields enormous political influence. It has 2.7 million members in 13,000 American communities. And for nearly two decades it has been an efficient machine for the Democratic Party.

Since its first presidential endorsement of Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election, the NEA has favored only Democrats.

The union spends far more money promoting Democrats than Republicans at all election levels, and it sends 13 times as many delegates to the Democratic convention.

FOR THE RECORD - The Education Beat column of July 28 stated incorrectly that Robert E. Schiller served as interim Baltimore school superintendent during the time the city and state settled a pair of lawsuits and entered a partnership to run the schools. In fact, Schiller's appointment was a result of the settlement in November 1996. The Sun regrets the error.

Conservatives point out that though more NEA members identify themselves as Democrats than as Republicans and independents, they do not comprise a majority.

The union's Democratic stance "really doesn't represent the bulk of teachers," said a report issued early this month by the conservative Evergreen Freedom Foundation in Olympia, Wash.

Not surprisingly, the three-page education plank approved by the Democrats contains nothing that would rile the NEA. In fact, as Chester E. Finn Jr., a federal education official in Republican administrations, points out, John Kerry softened earlier criticism of teacher tenure -- lifetime job security -- after some NEA "career counseling."

Among other platitudes typical of political platforms, the Democrats' education plank calls for increased teacher pay, "especially in schools and subjects where teachers are in short supply. ... At the same time, we must create rigorous new incentives and tests for new teachers."

The word "tenure" doesn't appear in the platform, Finn notes, and the teacher testing would apply only to new teachers.

What is notable about the Democrats' education position is that it doesn't call for the elimination of the No Child Left Behind Act.

In fact, about half of Kerry's proposed $200 billion, 10-year entitlement to the states for school spending would be devoted to No Child Left Behind, the signature education law of the Bush administration.

So the 2-year-old act has weathered storms of protest from local and state school officials, who call it an unfunded mandate, and we are likely to see another four years of mass testing as the schools inch toward universal student proficiency.

President Bush and his education secretary, Rod Paige, have been on the hustings to speak on behalf of the act.

"We stand with our teachers," Bush told the Urban League on Friday in Detroit. "But we're going to measure now in America, because ... if you don't measure, you do not know."

Seeking coinage of cliche about `low expectations'

In a talk in Las Vegas, Paige used a phrase that I first heard about five years ago and have read and heard perhaps 100 times since. It's now a cliche: "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

Bush used the phrase in his acceptance speech at the 2000 Republican National Convention. His brother, Jeb, has used it. His wife, Laura, has used it. Maryland state school board members have used it. Google, the popular Internet search engine, can take you to it 7,720 times.

I don't know who coined it. In Baltimore, J. Tyson Tildon, former president of the Board of School Commissioners, is widely credited.

But Tildon said yesterday that he had referred to "the toxicity of low expectations," and that he had heard the phrase from Dr. John T. Chissell, a Baltimore family physician who died this spring.

"`Toxicity' is more accurate than `bigotry,'" said Tildon, a biochemist. "When we have low expectations for children, it's like the toxicity of bacteria."

Robert Schiller may return to area -- with D.C. schools

Robert E. Schiller doesn't stay in one place long. He's had two superintendencies, in Shreveport, La., and the state of Illinois, since leaving Baltimore in 1998 after a year as interim schools chief.

Now, Schiller, 57, is one of two contenders for the job that nobody wants -- superintendent in the District of Columbia.

It was during Schiller's tenure here that the city and state settled a pair of lawsuits by joining in a partnership to run the schools.

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