WASHINGTON: Celebration of a substantial grassroots victory was cut short at the National Education Association (NEA) last week when Secretary of Education Rod Paige called the group a "terrorist organization," spurring calls for his resignation.
The NEA, a group which represents nearly 3 million American educators, has spent the past two years mobilizing its members in an effort to change parts of President Bush's signature education program, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) - efforts that came to fruition this month with a loosening of the law's penalties.
NCLB, passed with much fanfare and support from both parties in early 2002, sets tough standards for US public schools and imposes strict penalties on institutions that fall short. The NEA took issue with several of those measures from the start, claiming they didn't properly account for schools with high percentages of low-income children or students who spoke English as a second language.
In a coordinated effort to alter the law, the NEA and several affiliates encouraged educators and parents to advocate at the local level once its effects were felt. They also ran ads and mobilized volunteers in early primary states to raise the issue with Presidential candidates.
"We understood that as soon as annual progress scores began coming out, people would start to understand at the local level the impact this was having on our schools," said Dan Kaufman, director of PR for the NEA. "We knew that the more we could focus locally that the pressure would bubble up."
That pressure reached a zenith in recent months as dozens of state and local governments began passing laws condemning NCLB. On February 19, the Department of Education changed the law, stating that immigrant students would have a one-year grace period before their test scores counted toward a school's success or failure.
However, at a private White House meeting of governors just three days later, Paige called the group a "terrorist organization" for its hard-nosed advocacy tactics. He quickly recanted the statement, calling it a "bad joke," but the NEA was unsatisfied.
"The administration must be made to understand the gravity of the charge leveled at 2.7 million patriotic American citizens," read an NEA news release on Tuesday calling for the secretary's resignation. As of press time, President Bush had not responded to the demand.