Elmer Smith | 'T' is for teachers - and 'terrorists'

Posted: July 03, 2007

THREE years ago, President Bush's education secretary called the National Education Association a "terrorist organization."

He may have had a point.

The 3.2-million-member organization, - celebrating its 150th anniversary in Philadelphia, where it was founded - has the presidential candidates so terrorized they've all turned into apple-polishers.

Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Chris Dodd were first to take the podium yesterday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, where the NEA is convening.

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, and Delaware Sen. Joe Biden will bring their apples for the teachers on Thursday.

Any candidate left standing by next year, when the million-member American Federation of Teachers meets in Chicago, will show up there, too. By then, if you gathered a half-dozen teachers on your front lawn, you could expect a presidential candidate to show up.

After years of being castigated as part of the problem, after hearing Republican candidates and some Democrats pledge to start their education reforms by dissing teachers' unions, the tide has turned.

The political bashing of teachers' unions was the most successful misdirection move out of Washington since the Redskins offensive line gave us the "counter-trey."

If former Education Secretary Rod Paige could have come up with a more offensive line than his "terrorist organization" crack, he would have. It was just good politics. He once compared critics of the No Child Left Behind program to segregationists who stood in doorways to keep black children out of schools.

Three years later, Paige is out, No Child Left Behind in its present form is about to be out, and teachers' unions? Well, did I mention that the NEA and the AFT have about 4.5 million members between them?

Yesterday was Clinton's turn to be the teachers' pet. Her remarks were as predictable as a failing grade for a truant student. But she said what they needed to hear her say.

President Bush can't be allowed just "to check the education box by passing No Child Left Behind and check out by not funding it," she said.

Nice sound bite, especially since that is exactly what this administration has done. Not once since NCLB was passed in 2002 has the administration spent what Congress authorized. Bush hasn't even spent what he asked Congress to provide for NCLB.

Congress authorized $22.75 billion for the program last year. The president asked for only $13.3 billion. Pennsylvania received $497.8 million from that outlay. Congress had authorized $848.7 million.

With 279 Pennsylvania elementary schools struggling to meet the NCLB's Adequate Yearly Progress standard, the administration sends a mixed message by refusing to alter the standard while withholding $351 million this year that could help them make the grade.

Is it a complete failure? Far from it. As even a veteran Bush basher like Hillary Clinton told the NEA yesterday, some progress has been made.

But after five years of testing, No Child Left Behind is still long on diagnosis and short on therapy. Schools teach to test instead of learning from them.

"The test is becoming the curriculum when it should be the other way around," Clinton intoned. "How much creativity is being left behind? How much passion for learning is being left behind?"

As for me, I wonder how many children are being left behind by a culture that brands them as failures if they don't test well instead of devising lesson plans geared to their learning styles? How many schools will be written off as chronic failures instead of being fixed?

What could be more cynical than to come up with a program that shows where your child or his school is failing, then leaves money on the table that could provide tutors, after-school programs and alternatives through which he could get the help he needs?

Such questions are being asked in Congress this week as the reauthorization of NCLB is being debated in the think-tanks where candidates are building their platforms.

And in Philadelphia this week, where the largest organization of domestic terrorists in America is celebrating its 150th anniversary. *

Send e-mail to smithel@ phillynews.com or call 215-854-2512. For recent columns: http://go. philly.com/smith

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