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Education Secretary's NEA Slam Called Political Ploy

Ohanian Comment: One could wish that NEA were trying to undermine and sabotage NCLB. More's the pity--and the shame--that they're not. What you get here is a view of how NEA plays the political game.

(Editor's Note: This is the first in a series examining the clash between the Bush administration and the nation's largest teachers' union.)

(CNSNews.com) - U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige's recent criticism of the National Education Association was an election-year ploy designed to fire up the conservative base, according to a current and a former lobbyist at the NEA.

Randall J. "Randy" Moody, the NEA's chief lobbyist, told CNSNews.com that Paige's labeling of the union as "obstructionist" was an unfair attack. The union wants changes to the No Child Left Behind Act, the bipartisan education law enacted in 2002.

"Our position [on the law] either is misinterpreted or purposely misinterpreted for political purposes--that we're trying to undermine it, sabotage it," said Moody, the NEA's manager of federal policy and politics.

Tensions over the law prompted Paige to call the NEA a "terrorist organization" at a Feb. 23 meeting of the nation's governors. He later apologized, but took aim at the union's Washington lobbyists for their "obstructionist scare tactics."

Moody said he has visited the Department of Education three times since Bush took office. He described the administration as unwilling to go along with the 47 technical amendments for which the NEA's members have lobbied.

"If there had been some reaching out, at least part of the way, this blowup wouldn't have happened," Moody said. "Maybe on purpose they didn't want to compromise to use it as a political issue. But I think it is the wrong political issue for them. I think it's backfired."

A former NEA lobbyist told CNSNews.com that Paige's criticism wasn't merely a slip of the tongue, but rather a cleverly crafted attempt to rally President Bush's conservative base.

"I don't think it was such an accident for the secretary," said David A. Bryant, a former senior professional associate for government relations at NEA. "I think they're trying out themes to get their base fired up. It's easier to blame the liberal bogeyman for fomenting fear and dissension."

Bryant, who left the NEA in January 2003, said criticism of the No Child Left Behind Act by some conservative state lawmakers has put the Bush administration on the defensive. But Bryant said this administration has failed in its attempt to counter the union.

"When I worked on [Capitol] Hill and Reagan was president, he just had a better way of going to the airwaves and co-opting his opposition," Bryant said. "I don't think [Reagan] had to bludgeon. These [Bush] guys would like to think they're as good as the team in place then, but I just don't think they're as skillful."

Paige's spokeswoman, Susan Aspey, dismissed the allegations. She reiterated the secretary's apology, which she said drew a distinction between his high regard for teachers and frustration with the NEA's Washington lobbyists.

Aspey also defended the tougher standards contained in the No Child Left Behind Act.

"For years we've been throwing money into the education system with no accountability," Aspey said. "Now there's an outcry from some established interests that we are requiring accountability for results. There is no American business that doesn't have accountability for results - at least a successful one anyway."

'They didn't really need us'

Bryant spent four years at the NEA's Washington headquarters and prior to that served as a lobbyist for the Maryland State Teacher's Association. He now works for the Preservation of Affordable Housing in Boston.

"I wasn't particularly surprised [by Paige's comments]," Bryant said. "He came in with his dander up toward the NEA in particular, if not all organized teachers' unions."

Because Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and U.S. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), two prominent liberals on Capitol Hill, supported Bush's approach for education reform in 2001, Bryant said the NEA was essentially left out of the debate over the No Child Left Behind Act.

"They didn't really need us," Bryant said. "They had George Miller and Ted Kennedy, first and foremost, so they felt they didn't really need the teachers' union. And late in the game, when it was clear the bill was going to pass, it was quite clear there was no real significant effort to extend or continue this kind of dialogue."

Bryant said when Paige did "extend an olive branch" to the NEA, the union construed it as "showboating." Bryant acknowledged, however, that some of the resentment likely resulted from the union's backing of Democrat Al Gore in 2000.

Lacking friends in Paige's department and grappling with Kennedy and Miller's support of the Bush education plan, Bryant said some the union's members questioned why the NEA wasn't doing a better job of advancing its agenda in Congress.

"From my perspective, as a lobbyist at the time, they were a little more tepid than some of us might have liked," he said. "But the reality was that we were getting pressure from our allies on the Hill who felt this was the right direction to go in. Certainly our members were a little more radical about how this could be happening.

"But we had lost the election, ultimately. We were on the losing side, if you will. It wasn't like we were driving policy," Bryant said. "If you have a significant number of the Democratic caucus tell you that they're going to back the president on this reform, you really can't stop it."

'It's a power struggle'

Even though the Bush administration hasn't wholly endorsed the union's call for changes to the law, Paige has rolled out three adjustments in recent months, including last week's decision to ease the deadline for teachers to achieve high quality status. The prior two changes loosened the standards dealing with special education testing and the program that helps students learn English.

Moody, the NEA's chief lobbyist, said he hopes the union's suggestions were partly responsible for the changes. But he also realizes that the Bush administration isn't likely to admit the NEA or its sister union, the American Federation of Teachers, had any impact because of the "power struggle" in Washington.

"I don't know what [Paige's] personal feelings are, but it's all about power and who has it," Moody said. "He sees not only the NEA, but AFT and the other unions as power centers and they're not always going to act in accordance with the political goals of the administration. It's a power struggle."

In his 27 years as a Democratic aide on the House Committee on Education and Labor, John F. "Jack" Jennings said he observed a fair number of fights between Republican administrations and teachers' unions.

"The NEA and Republican presidents don't get along," said Jennings, who is now the director of the Center for Education Policy. "Republicans don't like unions, and unions generally don't like Republicans. And the teachers' union is one of the strongest unions in the country."

Jennings said the NEA's criticism of Bush doesn't compare to the attacks former President Bill Clinton had to endure from conservatives in 1994, the last time a major education bill was enacted.

"What the right wing stirred up about [Clinton's] Goals 2000 is nowhere near what the NEA is stirring up now," Jennings said. "It was pure vile and hatred. And it wasn't reasoned. At least at the NEA they have some basis for what they're saying."

But the Heritage Foundation's Krista Kafer, who testified on behalf of the No Child Left Behind Act, said Paige got it right when he ridiculed the NEA for "obstructionist scare tactics."

"If you read [the NEA's] literature and some of the things they say in the press, they can be very melodramatic," Kafer said. "They attempt to scare people into thinking this is a horrible law, when in fact, what is the big deal in requiring schools to ensure that kids are reading and doing math at grade level? To hear them talk about it you'd think it was the worst thing in the world."

— Robert B. Bluey
Cybercast News Service
http://www.cnsnews.com//ViewPolitics.asp?Page=\\Politics\\archive\\200403\\POL20040322a.html


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