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Kerry's Education Laundry List Puts NEA in Spin Cycle

The National Education Association's recent presidential recommendations have had a touch of comedy for the organization "or tragedy" depending on how committed an education labor activist you are.

NEA loved Bill Clinton, though the union was periodically abashed by his forceful rhetorical support of charter schools. They recommended Al Gore, who went out and selected as his running mate U.S. Senator Joseph Lieberman, the nation's most prominent Democratic supporter of school vouchers. This year, the union steadfastly refused to take sides in the contentious Democratic presidential primary. NEA did not jump on the Howard Dean bandwagon, and patiently waited for the field to winnow itself out. When it became clear John Kerry would win the nomination, the union still waited for its regularly scheduled executive meetings to address the recommendation. NEA's executive committee and board of directors at last anointed Kerry as the chosen candidate, to be put to a formal vote of the representative assembly in July.

And then, as if on cue, Senator Kerry gave an education policy speech at a San Bernardino, California, public school on May 6 that sent the union's PR people spinning like tops.

Kerry pledged to spend more than $20 billion over 10 years to improve teacher pay, but with strings. The bulk of the money would go to "differential pay" to teachers who work in hard-to-staff schools, or who teach math or science, or who meet performance standards.

According to the Los Angeles Times article, "Kerry would require all states receiving the new federal money to toughen the tests used to certify new teachers. Even more dramatically, he would require those states to simplify the process for teacher dismissal."

"No one can have a lock on the job forever, no matter what," Kerry said.

Kerry's plan would provide federal funds for performance pay programs, letting districts use multiple measures for performance but, according to the Los Angeles Times, "would require that school officials base part of their assessments on how a teacher's students perform academically."

Kerry also mentioned wanting to "break down the walls of bureaucracy to attract either veterans or mid-career professional from business" into teaching.

Reporter David M. Halbfinger of the New York Times captured the union response to the speech perfectly:

I believe we need to offer teachers more pay", [Kerry] began, interrupted by applause.

He continued: "More training, more career choices, and more options for education. And we must ask more in return. That's the bargain." And there was silence.

Officially, there wasn't much enthusiasm shown. The AFT statement simply ignored the bulk of Kerry's proposals, and commended him for being "committed to fully funding the No Child Left Behind Act."

The NEA statement took a similar tack, announcing support for Kerry's "fundamental premise" (which is the same thing union officials say about NCLB) and stating, "We look forward to discussing ways to help strengthen Senator Kerry's proposals in ways that will meet the needs of America's public school students." All that was missing was ominous music. The Los Angeles Times also reported that "union leaders already have complained about the proposal to key Democrats on Capitol Hill, Democratic aides say."

In addition, NEA issued talking points emphasizing agreement that "schools should be able to provide incentives to attract and keep teachers in hard-to-staff schools." But the union disagrees with providing bonuses for math and science teachers.

Kerry's speech backed the union into a corner on two tenets of new unionism that have not withstood the test of time in NEA: performance pay and firing poor teachers. The quickly-generated talking points skirt these issues, but still come down on the wrong end of NEA resolutions. The union "would be willing to look at ways to develop fast, fair procedures for improving or replacing teachers who do not perform on the job," the points state, and also "to look at ways to reward teachers for performance" so long as they are objective, open to all, and use multiple, objective methods for judging success." Unfortunately for NEA, this latter formulation does not square with its own resolution F-10, which baldly states the union's opposition to "merit pay or performance pay compensation systems."

Kerry's plan also undermined one of the planks in NEA's opposition to the No Child Left Behind Act that it is a one-size-fits-all approach that reduces local control and hands over too much of education policy to the federal government. That's a fine argument, but how can you make it if your candidate wants federal bureaucrats to approve and regulate teacher pay systems?

It's only May, and NEA still has plenty of time to "educate" Kerry on his policy proposals. But Kerry and the Democratic Party may be less inclined to listen. The day before Kerry's speech, Virginia Gov. Mark R. Warner, a Democrat, made a very similar proposal on performance pay, bonuses to teachers to work in hard-to-staff schools, and "master teacher" licensing. Where this all goes is anybody's guess, but it isn't all cakes and ale at NEA headquarters.

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Last modified: May 11, 2004

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