- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 8, 2003

NEW ORLEANS — The president of the National Education Association acknowledges that the union is left-wing politically and 90 percent pro-Democrat but says he wants to reach out more to Republicans.

“I think many [Republican leaders in the Bush administration and Congress] feel as though we may not support as many Republicans as Democrats. That has been true in the past,” NEA President Reg Weaver told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview at the conclusion of the union’s annual convention here.

“However, we have been reaching out to many Republicans to try to get support of issues that are important to children and public education,” he said.

Mr. Weaver says he wants to find “common ground” on changes to President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act on school reform.

The NEA president said part of his effort is to temper anti-Republican attacks by NEA officers and members that have polarized the union against the administration and Republican majority in Congress.

“I believe in the power of positive thinking, I really do,” he said. “And you will find that since I have been president, what I have tried to do was present the NEA with a different image because it was my goal to try to get more groups, individuals, media working with us to try to make the changes that I believe needed to be made to promote what my agenda was for the organization, which was to create an atmosphere that’s conducive to good teaching and learning and an atmosphere that is safe … for our students and our members.”

Throughout the NEA’s nine days of private caucuses and four-day convention, Mr. Bush and Republicans were the brunt of criticism and ridicule.

During two pre-convention political sessions June 29 to discuss the union’s strategy in the 2004 congressional and presidential elections, NEA chief Washington lobbyist Randall J. Moody referred to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay of Texas and other Republican leaders as “right-wing extremists.”

“Since I have been [NEA] president, you have not found that to be public information,” Mr. Weaver said in the interview. “That has not been stated publicly. And you have not heard me as the spokesperson refer to anybody such as that.”

Mr. Weaver said a reporter from The Washington Times “happened to get in [the strategy session] somehow, but that was not a public gathering. Now, what I say to my members in Timbuktu might be different than what I say … to the public. But what I do is I try not to put people down.”

Mr. Weaver attended a June 29 luncheon for state NEA leaders at the New Orleans Marriott Hotel, where Kerry Kennedy Cuomo said, in her biggest applause line, “The Republican Party is the biggest danger to democracy.”

During the four-day convention, a widely circulated newsletter of the NEA Peace and Justice Caucus criticized the Iraq war and included a mock resume of Mr. Bush, saying he was the “first U.S. president to establish a secret shadow government.”

The full-page printed mock resume is headlined “Bushwacked!” and is topped with a picture portraying Mr. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney as the Scarecrow and the Tin Man from “The Wizard of Oz.” A caption above Mr. Bush says, “If I only had a brain!” and above Mr. Cheney says, “If I only had a heart!”

On Thursday, the convention of about 10,000 NEA members — current and retired teachers and school support employees — erupted in cheering and laughter as TV monitors in the hall showed a female delegate’s T-shirt declaring: “Bush reminds women of their first husband.”

Mr. Weaver said he is trying to move the NEA away from partisanship. “We are asking our [state affiliates] to be more supportive and recommend more Republican candidates,” he said. “And so we are reaching out. Is it producing all of the results that we want? No. But are we going to continue to try? Yes.”

In his keynote speech to the convention, Mr. Weaver challenged Education Secretary Rod Paige’s comment that the NEA was “a coalition of the whining” in its opposition to the No Child Left Behind Act.

“People in the schools, people in the state governments, they’re not whining, they’re crying,” Mr. Weaver said. “All we’re trying to do is to help to stop the tears.”

In an interview off the convention floor at its wrap-up session, the NEA president said: “I want us to try to come to common ground. When I talked to Secretary Paige, we all said, ‘Look, let us see if we can find some common ground to go forward on those things that we agree with, and those things that we don’t agree with we’ll leave over here.’”

Delegates adopted the NEA’s legislative agenda and budget for the next year and more than 300 resolutions on an array of educational, political, social and foreign-policy issues.

In the resolutions, NEA members supported homosexual rights; programs to teach schoolchildren to be tolerant of homosexual, bisexual and “transgendered” lifestyles; and allowing “reproductive freedom,” including abortion, for teenagers. They also criticized capital punishment in the United States and called for a federally run health care program.

“Our organization is a microcosm of society, and our members reflect the views and opinions of that society,” Mr. Weaver said. “But I will say, the resolutions reflect how people feel about society as well as what we can do to help children.”

A major focus of the meeting was NEA’s opposition to key features of the Bush administration’s school reform law that requires a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom by 2006 and reading and math proficiency for all children in each grade by 2014.

At two forums, major provisions of the law were attacked, and dozens of delegates spoke out against yearly testing requirements, saying they would disrupt regular instruction and take away time and resources from non-reading and non-math classes.

The NEA has sent Congress 47 “technical amendments” to the law’s accountability provisions, which require children’s test scores to be “disaggregated” for students from minority and low-income families, students with limited English proficiency, and students with disabilities.

A Republican staff analysis for the House Education and the Workforce Committee calls the proposed NEA amendments an attempt to undermine the law’s accountability provisions and “dismantle” the law.

“Many politicians are so caught up with ‘It’s being proposed by the NEA,’” Mr. Weaver said. “I wish they would move beyond that and look to see what we’re offering.”

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