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Home » Chalk Talk – Fightin’ Words: Why Secretary Paige, and the Nation, Deserve Better

February 24, 2004

I tried my best this morning to balance that which I heard Rod Paige, Secretary of Education, said about the NEA to the Governors yesterday, against the outraged response of Democratic party leaders and the leaders of the NEA itself.

Try as I might to find balance, I myself am outraged by the hypocritical response that often goes unexamined by the media and the opponents of reform themselves.

Paige called the NEA a “terrorist” group. In this day and age, that term, of course, brings fear to people’s hearts and minds. But like many conversations in Washington, and much hyperbole that surrounds them, many tend to use emotional, and hard-charging words to describe groups that are unbelievably harmful to what we believe to be our cause, and the justice of it all.

Paige believes communities and the people in them should be held to account for all the education they deliver. That’s the premise behind the No Child Left Behind law. He also believes that parental options are critical, and that no stone should be left unturned in the effort to get children into good schools from ones that have failed them.

At least that’s my interpretation. To make his vision happen, there is a federal law, now 2 years old, that he helped craft but did not achieve alone. There were many hands, and many thousands of hours and pages reviewed by Congressional aides, members, and lobbyists. It was a big process, and many did then and still disagree with some aspects here and there. But it was not of Paige’s making on his own.

He advocates for it and pushes other things in his role to help people understand the importance – the crisis – in public education. Regardless of your views on No Child Left Behind or even school choice, you need to understand that in doing what they believe is best, Paige and others who share his support are constantly maligned. The maligning is most often done by the NEA and its leadership, although their allies share in the attacks quite often. Yet those attacks which border on hate speech are neither noticed by the press, nor punished verbally by the leaders of political parties who seem to have weighed in heavily in this case against Paige.

Consider what we hear all the time. We who support education reform have been told that by our support for school choice we are returning the nation to the days of “Jim Crow laws.” We are told constantly we are intentionally destroying public education, that we are siphoning money from poor children, and that, (this one is a doozy) we are Balkanizing the nation. [See Nine Lies About School Choice: Answering the Critics for more.]

Now which is worse? Hatred, destruction and discrimination, or terrorism? Maybe accusing someone of engaging in activities akin to these awful things is equally bad across the board. But let’s be clear about two things. The first is that the NEA does engage in activities at all levels that force compliance with an agenda that most teachers do not believe in, or are aware of. (That’s a fact derived from years of surveys, polling, protests and other observations across academia, advocacy and research communities, much of which has been cited on our web site, through the Education Intelligence Agency, state groups like Evergreen Freedom Foundation or through former union leaders who now focus on union behavior for a living, such as Myron Lieberman.)

The second point to understand in order to properly assess the situation is the fact that criticizing the NEA is not the same as criticizing teachers. In a clever and deliberate attempt to paint Secretary Paige as a teacher-basher, NEA President Reg Weaver deflected Paige’s comments on teachers by saying he had outraged their members and families. The truth is that their “members” and “families” were in classrooms teaching yesterday when all this occurred and only heard about the brouhaha with news reports in the late afternoon that did not hit most of the media until today, and after the NEA PR shop did its best to let affiliates know what to say.

But what is an NEA member anyway? Is it a teacher who voluntarily signs up to have the NEA defend, bargain for and speak on behalf of him or her in political situations? Or is it a teacher or other school employee who by virtue of NEA-backed laws is forced in most states to be a member, pay a fee or dues, rarely must go to or rely on the state or national association for anything but is often spoken for in matters pertaining to all politics, regardless of whether or not it affects the classroom?

The reality is that the latter is the honest-to-goodness, but unfortunate, truth. The NEA does not represent well the views of its members, and its delegates that meet annually to consider nuclear war, gay rights, environmental policy and hundreds of other non-education issues are a small fraction of the more than 3 million teachers in this nation who, given the choice, would not join the NEA, or its counterpart the AFT, were it not for compulsory union laws.

And so, consider Paige’s point of view. Here in Washington, the leaders who run the $20 million-plus glass-encased building on 16th street show up on Capitol Hill often, put money in the pockets of opponents of NCLB, school choice, charter schools, etc. They campaign heartily for laws and ballot initiatives that bring more money but no reform to the table, spend time investigating the opponents and putting out internal memos about how to destroy them. The NEA stands in the way of anyone who would want to admit that we have failed as a society to give all children the education they deserve.

The NEA and its state affiliates call for walk-outs, sick-outs and other forms of protest that deny children the teaching they need. They take kids to state capitals to multiply their numbers and promise them free service credits for doing so. They shut down schools in Detroit over pay negotiations for a few percentages of income – income, by the way, they would have if their bureaucracy wasn’t so huge, and if they’d let changes occur that improve education for everyone.

In Washington state, such behavior by the state’s NEA affiliate was enough to send more than 3,000 teachers packing and suing for their rights to the money that had been spent against their wishes on political efforts. It turns out that the WEA had to pay back millions of misspent political money to the treasury, but their coffers are still full and the teachers are permitted only to fight going forward on a case by case basis. They simply have no choice in the matter, thanks to labor laws that unfairly subsidize groups like the NEA to fight people and causes, the likes of which Rod Paige (and countless others) represents.

When Democratic party spokesperson Terry McAuliffe says that Paige’s speech was “vile and disgusting,” when Senator John Kerry joins the NEA in saying Paige’s speech was an afront to teachers, then something else is going on here. This is not a case of real disagreement or even of issues. This is a chance, in a political election year, to take sides, call names, and ensure that the Democratic party retains the unswerving support of the nation’s largest labor union, the NEA. Even though a majority of NEA members are not Democrats, the eyes of the party faithful are on the big contributions that come from the money and sweat that the unions contribute to help their candidates win.

“Boy, she’s being partisan,” you might say! If this twenty-five year old arrangement were occurring with any other party, I’d say the same thing. When a special interest takes positions contrary to what is best for the constituents they serve, they deserve to take the shots that people like Paige are courageous enough to dole out. It’s unfortunate he had to apologize outright. To his credit, Paige said in his apology that NEA’s “high priced lobbyists” make no secret in fighting “rock-solid” improvements in schools.

I’d prefer he had added that, “I’m sorry I used such harsh language but you have to understand – the NEA has used such incredibly hostile, arrogant and downright damaging tactics that I got carried away.”

And then maybe I could be so bold as to suggest that the Secretary could ask that the NEA apologize to all reformers for their hateful characterizations of anyone who advocates for reform as being mean-spirited, anti-public education, undemocratic, etc.

Because maybe it is wrong to call anyone a terrorist in this day and age. But given all that the NEA and many other special interests has done to stifle parent-friendly, teacher-friendly, common-sense reforms, some of us do get carried away.

Maybe we’re all just too passionate about the whole thing. And on the eve of a special religious day, maybe it’s not too bad an idea to contemplate a few things, including the idea of sacrifice and doing for others because it’s right, not because it’s a paycheck.