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NEA Comes Out Against NCLB

New Orleans

The National Education Association put up its dukes here at its annual meeting, vowing to build political muscle and fight much of President Bush's sweeping federal education law.

Union President Reg Weaver told more than 9,000 cheering delegates in his keynote address that the "No Child Left Behind" Act of 2001 poses as Dr. Jekyll but is really the evil Mr. Hyde. Combined with the worst state budget crisis since World War II, the law is draining money from wiser efforts to lift student achievement and is shaping up to be "the granddaddy of all underfunded federal mandates," he charged.

To counter that direction, the nation's largest union is stressing recruitment of new members as never before, while launching what Mr. Weaver called "a full-court, legislative press to fix and fund" the federal law.

It also plans to challenge the legislation, the latest reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, with a lawsuit on behalf of states, school districts, and teachers, NEA leaders announced at the start of the July 1-6 gathering.

"NEA has immense problems with NCLB," said Robert H. Chanin, the chief counsel for the 2.7 million-member union. "At this convention, I think any pretense of support has been swept away."

The requirements of the law, one of the signature initiatives for President Bush when he came to office, include annual testing in reading and mathematics in grades 3-8; increasingly severe consequences for schools that fail to meet standards; and higher teacher qualifications. Most kick in over the next few years, but some are already having negative effects, teachers at the meeting said.

Among the specific changes sought by the union: a definition of a "highly qualified" teacher that requires less proof of content knowledge; more flexibility for states in measuring schools' progress and in imposing penalties; and money for states and districts to help classroom assistants meet new quality standards. The union will also try to make full funding of the law a prerequisite of mandatory compliance.

'Whining' or Cry for Help?
That, too, is the aim of the proposed lawsuit, which is based on a provision of the ESEA that the union believes protects states and districts from having to spend their own money to comply with its requirements.
The NEA says the federal government has not earmarked enough money to revamp testing systems, offer more school choice to parents, or train teachers and classroom assistants—all routes state and local authorities are taking to comply with the law.

Mr. Chanin said the lawsuit turns on unfunded mandates because that argument is likely to draw the most support from the union's allies, including civics rights groups, some of which are in favor of the law's implementation.

The lawyer said he is in discussion with officials in several states, hoping they will sign on to the lawsuit. Legislators in Hawaii, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, and Utah have introduced bills that propose opting out of the federal law, even at the risk of losing federal Title I money for the disadvantaged, Mr. Chanin noted. Other possible plaintiffs include school districts and local teachers' unions, but the national union will go it alone, if need be, Mr. Chanin said. He said he plans to file the suit sometime this summer.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige criticized the suit, contending that the legal action amounts to a "coalition of the whining to hold kids back."

"It is unfortunate that the NEA establishment is talking about ways to hinder the goal of true reform and greater educational achievement opportunities for our children," Mr. Paige said in a statement.

Mr. Weaver sharply disagreed, saying teachers weren't whining but crying out for help. "The powers that be should find ways to stop the crying," the union president said, "such that [educators] will have what they need to be successful in providing a quality education for young people." . . .

— Bess Keller
NEA Takes Stand Against Bush Education Law
Education Week
July 7, 2003


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