PHILADELPHIA — Democratic presidential candidates received standing ovations from the National Education Association yesterday as they criticized President Bush, called for more funding for federal mandates and a decreased focus on testing, and decried a recent Supreme Court ruling against using race in assigning students to schools.
The nation’s largest teachers union is celebrating its 150th anniversary at its annual meeting this week, where more than 9,000 delegates will hear from seven Democratic presidential candidates and one Republican, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. Yesterday, delegates heard from Democratic hopefuls Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut.
Though the powerful 3.2-million-member union probably won’t endorse a candidate until next year, presidential hopefuls were wasting no time asking for support.
The seven Democratic presidential hopefuls at the conference, responding to an NEA questionnaire, endorsed a list of several NEA-supported ideas, including more funding for mandates under the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act and more creative ways of measuring student progress other than the testing that the law requires.
“Learning is not about filling in the bubbles,” Mr. Dodd said, calling for schools to receive credit under the law for improving their dropout rates and making other progress.
“Are you ready to put children, and how they learn, first and not just measure it by test after test?” asked Mrs. Clinton.
No Child Left Behind aims to hold schools accountable by requiring states to test and track students and penalizes schools that consistently fail to meet state-set standards. The NEA and its supporters say the law is too rigid and want more flexibility in testing and tracking students, especially special-needs and foreign-speaking students. The law is up for renewal this year, and a bill could start moving through the House this month.
The Democratic candidates have good reason for courting the powerful union, which typically sides with their party on a range of issues. The organization has given more than $27 million — 93 percent to Democrats — since 1990, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The NEA endorsed Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004, and Democrat Al Gore in 2000.
Yesterday, Mr. Weaver and all three Democratic speakers bashed the Supreme Court decision that struck down district diversity policies that assigned students to schools based on race. Mr. Dodd called it a “shameful, shameful decision,” and Mrs. Clinton called it “a huge setback.”
The remaining Democratic presidential candidates on tap to speak this week are Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio and Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico.
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