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Democrats Step On NCLB Running Into Teachers' Arms

By Ruben Navarrette

It's no surprise to see presidential candidates pandering to contributors. But what is disappointing is how far some of them will go to take care of those who take care of them.

Imagine being so eager to please the money crowd that you'll try to destroy a reform measure that is reasonable and helpful, especially when the help is going to the same folks you claim to represent.

That's what happened recently when the major Democratic presidential candidates made a pilgrimage to the annual convention of the National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union with 3.2 million members, and -- one by one -- bashed the No Child Left Behind law.

We're talking about one of the most important educational reforms of the last 50 years -- and one that is quite modest. One of the law's central goals is that all children be reading and doing math at grade-level -- by 2014.

Why, have you ever heard of such a thing? A lot of teachers oppose that requirement as too stringent and too unrealistic. Wouldn't you like to know if your child's teacher is among those who want to keep the bar low and who apparently don't see a problem with children performing below grade-level?

NCLB also lifts the curtain on which kids are learning and which aren't by calling for testing in the third through eighth grades and once in high school, and requiring districts to group students' test scores by race and ethnicity. For the most part, teachers hate the emphasis on testing. At their convention, some wore buttons and stickers proclaiming:

"A child is more than a test score." And they really hate having to advertise to the world what sort of job they're doing in teaching students of certain racial and ethnic backgrounds.

This suggests that teachers know more than they're letting on about which students they're serving and which they're sacrificing. The law shares the information with the rest of us.

So you might think that the Democrats running for president, who rarely miss an ethnic celebration and who claim to have the best interests of African-Americans and Latinos at heart, would rush to defend No Child Left Behind -- especially since the candidates who were in Congress in 2001 voted for the legislation.

You know better. The only thing close to the heart of politicians is cold cash, and those with the cash -- i.e., unions such as the NEA -- want this law tossed into the dustbin. NCLB comes up for reauthorization in Congress later this year and the campaign to kill it is well under way.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NEA gave more than $1.9 million to candidates in the 2006 federal elections. Another union, the American Federation of Teachers, gave more than $2.1 million.

And, if the pattern of contributions during over the last three decades is any indication, the lion's share of that money went to Democrats over Republicans by a margin of 9-1.

And that's just the latest installment. According to the National Taxpayers Union, from September 2004 through August 2005, the NEA spent $25 million on political activities and lobbying, and an additional $65.5 million on contributions, gifts and grants.

And what do the teachers unions get in return? You name it. They call the tune, and the Democrats dance to it.

Not that Republicans are any more virtuous. They just serve a different array of masters such as the National Rifle Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the American Medical Association and other groups whose interests are in line with the conservative agenda.

Incidentally, there are a lot of Republicans in Congress who also oppose No Child Left Behind. For the 57 Republican lawmakers in both the House and Senate who signed on to bills that would allow states to opt out of some of its key requirements, the issue is local control. They think districts should have more flexibility. And they're disappointed that the legislation didn't allow for students in failing schools to be given vouchers to attend private schools.

In an apparent bid to regain GOP support, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is reportedly pushing for vouchers to be included in the renewed version of No Child Left Behind.

That should have been in the law all along. Still, the NEA is going to come unglued. I can just see the buttons.

Say, if the teachers are looking for slogans, how about this one: "A child is more than a paycheck."

(c) 2007, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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 Ruben Navarrette
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