Paige Calls Teachers Union a ‘Terrorist Organization’
The Bush administration’s simmering frustration with criticism of the 2002 school reform law known as “No Child Left Behind” boiled over Monday as Education Secretary Rod Paige lashed out at the nation’s largest teachers union, calling the 2.7-million-member National Education Assn. a “terrorist organization.”
Paige’s remark, in a closed-door meeting with a bipartisan group of governors at the White House, drew swift condemnation from Democrats and the union -- and quiet rebuke from many Republicans. The White House called the comment “inappropriate.”
According to one Democratic governor, James Doyle of Wisconsin, Paige said: “The NEA is a terrorist organization.” Another Democrat, Gov. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania, said of Paige’s remark: “I’m not sure he was being entirely serious, but it was probably inappropriate.”
The Education Department confirmed the quote, which Vermont Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, said came in response to a question about the NEA and the law.
Paige later apologized for what he called a poor choice of words but insisted that the NEA’s “Washington lobbyists” have been waging a campaign of “obstructionist scare tactics” against the law’s implementation. Paige, who is African American, added: “As one who grew up on the receiving end of insensitive remarks, I should have chosen my words better.”
Although relations are typically strained between the Democratic-leaning teachers union and any Republican administration, Paige’s remark went a step beyond the usual rhetorical combat. It gave an extraordinary glimpse at the tensions over the possible political fallout of a school reform law that many once viewed as one of the signature bipartisan achievements of the administration.
Using federal funds as an incentive, the law requires schools to test elementary and middle school students in reading and math, and chart yearly progress for groups and subgroups of students against state-defined standards. In return for meeting the benchmarks, districts are promised more money to aid disadvantaged students with basic skills.
Now, rather than being a political plus for the president, the school reform law is prompting revolt from many educators around the country and raising concerns on many school boards, and in city halls and statehouses.
One reason for the upheaval is that thousands of schools are being labeled as needing improvement -- to the surprise of many local officials. Federal sanctions are starting to kick in for those that appear to be in the worst shape -- including a requirement that parents be able to transfer students -- and that the failing schools pay for transportation and tutoring.
Vermont passed legislation last year to protect school districts from unreimbursed costs associated with the law, and some of the districts are opting out of the program. Protests are also building in the Virginia and Utah legislatures, and many local education officials are considering their own revolts.
In response, the Education Department has indicated that it may relax some of the rules. On Feb. 19, Paige announced new flexibility for school systems with high numbers of students who speak limited English. But that has not been enough to stop the criticism.
“The number of fronts against No Child Left Behind is increasing geometrically,” said Bruce Fuller, an education policy expert at UC Berkeley. “Paige has got to be frustrated.”
The leading Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts and John Edwards of North Carolina, both voted for the law but now regularly criticize many of its provisions as too onerous.
Both campaigns seized on Paige’s comments Monday as evidence that the administration is out of touch.
“These remarks are inappropriate, particularly at a time when our nation has experienced the devastation caused by terrorism,” said Stephanie Cutter, a Kerry spokeswoman.
Calling the remark “grossly offensive,” Edwards said: “These are men and women who get up every day to teach our kids how to read, write and add and subtract. We should have the utmost respect for our teachers who are entrusted with one of the greatest jobs in our nation.”
The union’s president, Reg Weaver, who has sharply criticized the administration’s implementation of the law, also denounced Paige’s remark. “It is morally repugnant to equate those who teach America’s children with terrorists,” he said. “Yet this is the kind of rhetoric we have come to expect from this administration whenever one challenges its worldview.”
One Democrat was willing to cut Paige some slack. “It’s the first time I’ve been around the secretary, and I give everyone the right to make one mistake,” said Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco. “I thought it was very strong language. I don’t think it’s appropriate, when you are trying to carry out education reforms, to shut the educators out. That’s doomed to failure.”
Bush was not present when Paige made his statement. But he told the governors, in remarks before the group, that he stood by the law, calling it “the absolute right role for the federal government ... to say, for the first time, ‘Would you please show us whether or not the children are learning to read and write and add and subtract?’ ”
The California Teachers Assn. is a NEA affiliate.
Times staff writer Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Associated Press contributed to this report.