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The New Tune on NCLB

America's largest teachers' union is up to old tricks, with the newfound help of John Kerry

By Travis R. Kavulla

If you asked a group of politically-informed college students if they were pleased with President Bush’s main domestic policy item of his term—the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)—chances are you wouldn’t get a very warm response. Viscerally aware of the party dogma on decentralization, a lot of Republicans have reacted violently to NCLB’s federal mandates; others, the more disconcerting band of Bush cheerleaders, usually give a nod of the head and a coy few words, perhaps a “well, he tried.” On the Left, NCLB occupies a place on the official hit list of Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., with the senator’s blithe suggestion of a National Education Trust, a pool of money to fund schools “no questions asked”—in other words, without federal mandates.

The good ol’ boys at the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teacher’s union, love this idea—so much so that they’ve been proposing it for nearly two decades. After what could be remembered by NEA apparatchiks as “the great betrayal,” when Democrats including Kerry voted for the NCLB’s planks on teacher and school accountability, the nominee-to-be has reversed himself, crudely plagiarizing the NEA’s position papers and taking them as his own plan to “make sure every child gets the skills they need.”

Kerry’s peculiar support of decentralization on education issues can be explained by looking at the NEA’s own political station. It’s an organization that prefers to work in state capitals—while those routinely collectivized under the label “gov jocks” at Harvard might overlook the powerhouse of the NEA in glances at national politics, it’s a good bet that you can find an NEA satellite’s office within three blocks of any state House. And on a community-by-community basis, the same school board system that allows the religious right to hijack school control in the South allows the NEA to do it elsewhere. Most localities in the United States hold separate school trustee and bond elections, meaning far lower voter turnouts—usually between 10 and 20 percent—than the already-disappointing numbers in a statewide or even municipal election. Besides being problematic for those who have utopian visions of the wonders decentralization can do for America’s schools, this syndrome upsets the balance between unionist and administrator with school board candidates relying on union support. It’s as if the AFL-CIO took over a company’s board of directors.

It would be wrong to think of the NEA as the American Medical Association for teachers, one that would assure the teaching credentials of its members or insist on better training. Shirking resemblance to a professional association, the NEA follows the union model forwarded by industrial labor. And for those who never expected Jimmy Hoffa to admonish unionists for lacking pride in the quality of their products, it’s pure fantasy to expect the NEA to pay more attention to the quality of students’ education than teachers’ salaries and benefits packages.

Nonetheless, that’s the tune Dems keep playing. To hear it from the mouth of NEA President Reg Weaver’s public comments, you’d think the NEA was all about education reform, standing up for children and arguing against byzantine labor rules that protect bad teachers and keep good teachers where they are. Weaver has invoked imagery of his union “fighting for children and public education” in nine out of ten of his op-ed pieces by an informal count. Indeed, whenever a word is said against the NEA, or someone questions whether its efforts have anything to do with what America’s typical teacher cares about, the response is unalterably familiar: If you criticize us, you criticize the teachers, children and educational institutions of America.

The NEA’s representation of the majority of American teachers is thus a curious thing. Just a glance at the NEA’s operations might be enough to confirm this: Teachers who want benefits and tenure in most districts must join the NEA; the union has a male-heavy leadership in a profession filled by women; and, more tellingly, the organization has done everything it can to obstruct even basic education reforms on federal and state levels. The union was outraged with NCLB and Democrats, who flocked to support the law after Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, ‘54-’56 D-Mass., signed up as a co-sponsor. That was hardly a novel occurrence, though—every six years, when the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’s mandatory reauthorization comes before Congress, it’s the same song and dance. Accountability for failing teachers? No. Incentives for successful educators? Think again. Charter schools? Hardly. Vouchers of any kind? In your dreams. Actually, the only policy the NEA has ever favored on Capitol Hill is a rather straightforward one: Giving more money to the nation’s schools with few or no strings attached—the aforementioned policy that Kerry has recently usurped.

This is the root inspiration for the vogue Democratic criticism of NCLB, not the fact that NCLB is unfunded. Indeed, the Bush administration has increased education spending 35.8 percent since it took office, a boost that accounts for the largest dollar increase of any domestic agency. Likewise, the reason why NCLB is being attacked is not because something went terribly wrong with the implementation of the bill—on the contrary, it’s working exactly as planned, coercing states (with however much disregard for local hardships) to educate children better or forego federal dollars, an idea that the NEA has consistently opposed.

Now, though, it seems that the NEA’s campaign donations—95 percent of which go into the hands of Democrats—are paying off. Kerry’s padded renunciation of the law he voted for—including the “National Education Trust” and the idea of making education reform a recommendation rather than a requirement—is hardly a courageous step for a Democrat and is a telling indicator of the NEA’s hand in the matter.

Travis R. Kavulla ‘06 is a history concentrator in Mather House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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