Politics & Policy

Failing Grade

NEA vs. school standards.

The National Education Association (NEA) pulled another predictable political stunt last week by filing suit against the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) and claiming the law amounts to an unfunded federal mandate. Demonstrating its propensity to pursue baseless litigation, rather than promote quality education, the nation’s largest teachers union wants the guts of the law suspended until–you guessed it–schools get even more federal money.

But its political strategy to expand education funding is morphing into a public-relations dud for the union. Criticized from both sides of the ideological divide, the lawsuit has the unintended effect of highlighting the dramatic increases in federal education spending over the past four years, as well as this administration’s commitment to improving schools for poor and minority kids–a mission NEA lost somewhere on its way to the courthouse.

House Education and Workforce chairman John Boehner thought the NEA’s latest ploy highlighted its real motivation in the debate. “Some lobbying groups want the federal money, but not the accountability that comes with the No Child Left Behind Act,” told me this week. “The NEA ought to spend its time figuring out how to raise education standards rather than constructing exotic legal theories.”

The case, Pontiac v. Spellings, underscores the NEA’s alacrity when it comes to litigation and political tussles for federal money, as well as its reticence toward reform and accountability. Notwithstanding evidence of real improvement in schools since the passage of NCLB and record amounts of federal funds, NEA sounds like a schoolhouse version of Jerry Maguire–”Show Me the Money.” But that’s an old movie, and the NCLB altered that refrain. Now a more appropriate line is: Show Me the Results–and then you get more money. And that’s starting to happen.

Mike Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, told the Philadelphia Daily News recently, “The progress in urban schools is not a fluke. It is consistent with the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) scores for large central cities and appears to show real headway by urban educators in raising student achievement.”

The NEA worked overtime to line up Democrat support for its lawsuit. Its website lists pre-arranged statements from Senate minority leader Harry Reid, Rep. George Miller, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, and Rep. Ted Strickland. While the Democrats were clued in early about the lawsuit, Republicans on Capitol Hill were kept in the dark. “We have evidence that the NEA coordinated the roll out of the lawsuit with the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Democratic governors,” a Republican staffer told me. “We found out about it at the last minute.” The NEA also briefed DNC chair Howard Dean beforehand, according to knowledgeable Hill sources. “I don’t think (Republican National Committee Chairman) Ken Mehlman made that list,” they said.

No big surprise, but despite its efforts to line up liberal support, criticism of the NEA’s lawsuit came from some unusual sources as well.

William Taylor, chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, criticized the NEA in a statement. “The NEA’s lawsuit contains no recognition whatsoever of the obligation of state and local governments to provide a decent and adequate public education for their children,” Taylor said. “We hope that the NEA’s suit–which lacks any legal foundation–will be quickly dismissed and the attention of all parties will be focused on the critical need to improve education.”

The Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) was equally unimpressed. Writing on Eduwonk.com, PPI acknowledged the suit is “obviously as much a political as legal strategy,” and predicted the tactic might backfire: “Rather than build additional sympathy for more education funding, the lawsuit will again be an opportunity for Republicans to call attention to the substantial increases in funding for elementary and secondary education over the past four years.”

The NEA tactics even generated some strange editorial-page bedfellows. “The lawsuit has the unique distinction of generating opposition from both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times editorial pages,” a House Republican aide told me. “Those two papers normally don’t agree on education policy.”

What began with NEA aspirations to explode NCLB with a flashy public-relations/legal blitzkrieg in the beginning of the congressional appropriations cycle seems to have ended with a hollow, predictable thud on Capitol Hill. More of the same from the defenders of the status quo.

For too many years, just throwing more money at the problem perpetuated educational mediocrity at best, and failure at worst, particularly in America’s urban schools. The Bush administration is asking for more–more accountability, and frankly more money where it is justified. The NEA has consistently tried to thwart these ambitious and idealistic goals. It’s time for them to get out of the way.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of research and policy at the Dutko Group Companies and a frequent NRO contributor.


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