2.25.2004

Educational Terrorism

From the WSJ Editorial Page

Paige's Point

A fact of political life today is that if you favor meaningful educational reform, you can automatically count yourself a political enemy of two groups: the teachers unions that prefer the status quo and too many politicians who depend on them for financial support.

This doesn't excuse Education Secretary Rod Paige's reference Monday to the National Education Association as a "terrorist group," a comment for which he immediately apologized. But it does explain why the people who claim to be so outraged want to dwell on the Secretary's off-the-cuff rhetorical gaffe rather than the behavior of his target.

In his apology, Secretary Paige said he makes a distinction between rank-and-file teachers and the NEA's "high-priced Washington lobbyists [who] have made no secret that they will fight against bringing real, rock-solid improvements in the way we educate all our children regardless of skin color, accent or where they live." Now, there's a truly disturbing accusation, and it happens to be spot-on.

Teachers unions are among the most powerful lobbies in American public life. In political influence they rank alongside the Teamsters, the AARP and the NRA. And they use the exact same hardball tactics to try to get what they want, which in their case is to preserve their monopoly on public education.

The NEA has 2.7 million members from whom it collects hundreds of millions dollars in involuntary dues and spends tens of millions on political activities, some 95% of which goes to Democrats. Its 1,800 designated political directors use an integrated command structure -- referred to internally as UniServ -- to coordinate national, state and local activities for Democratic candidates. Affiliates have a strong financial incentive to toe the line.

It's easy to forget that all but 8% of education spending occurs at the state and local level, and that's where the teachers unions wield most of their power by pressuring legislatures, defeating state ballot initiatives, supporting campaigns and even getting their own members elected and appointed to education committees. In state capitals, it's not unusual to find NEA headquarters within a stone's throw of the statehouse steps.

Back in Washington, NEA President Reg Weaver stands ready to describe any criticism of the union as an attack on public school teachers. "We are the teachers; there is no distinction," he told a reporter this week. The typical teacher, who earns a fraction of the $334,000 Mr. Weaver reportedly took home last year, may beg to differ.

So far as the NEA is concerned, the real outrage is the Bush Administration's attempt to introduce accountability in public education through the No Child Left Behind Act. The unions want to make it an issue in November and as usual the Democrats will try to accommodate them. "There are two big interesting education reform ideas in America today," says Chester Finn, a former Education Department official. "One involves standards and tests and accountability; the other involves competition and choice. The NEA is against both, and they will unflaggingly work to defeat both kinds of reforms."

We don't have to tell that to Rod Paige.

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