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Teachers Feel a Lot More Welcome in Democrats' Camp

Convention: The NEA is angry at Dole over his attack during nominating speech. They hope Clinton will help them regain the clout they lost in the 1980s.


CHICAGO — When anyone snarled the words "teachers unions" at the Republican convention in San Diego, it brought a cascade of boos, catcalls and jeers.

But here, among Democrats, the National Education Assn. evokes a strikingly different reaction--chest-jutting pride accompanied by cheers, applause and shouts of "four more years."

As the presidential campaign shifts to overdrive this month, the long-swelling controversy over the role of the NEA and other teachers unions in public education has burst forth as a major issue. Already under siege from reformers who argue that the unions stand in the way of overhauling troubled public schools, the unions are striving to make the 1996 election a referendum on their performance and future.

Teachers unions now are among the most aggressive of labor organizations, which are hoping to use the campaign as an arena to prove that they have regained the political clout they lost during the 1980s.

Bulging War Chest

The NEA, the nation's largest teachers union, came to the Democratic convention in record numbers with a single-minded goal of reelecting the president. Moreover, the union brought with it a war chest of $5.5 million raised through its political action committee.

More than anything else, the teachers focused their anger on GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole, who leveled a blistering attack on the teachers union during his nomination acceptance speech. "When I am president, I will disregard your political power--for the sake of the children, the schools and the nation," Dole said in comments directed at the NEA.

As Tuesday's events demonstrated, the vigor of the Republican attack is matched by the warmth of the Democratic embrace of the unions.

"We love all of our teachers in Tennessee and in America," Vice President Al Gore told teachers at an NEA rally here Tuesday. Noting that Dole had criticized the administration for being close to teachers, Gore said: "We take it as the highest compliment."

Education Secretary Richard W. Riley, who was honored at the event, said that Republicans must be prevented from trying to balance the federal budget by cutting federal aid to schools.

"Our children didn't create the budget deficit and they shouldn't have to pay for it with their education," Riley said.

'Mad and Mobilized'

In return, the teachers shouted their approval and support. During the two-hour rally, some speakers praised the administration for its support of public education. Teachers in the audience urged them on with placards that exclaimed "MAD AND MOBILIZED."

Among the many unions with a presence at this convention, the NEA is among the best organized. The teachers' group boasts the single largest delegation of any independent organization with 405 delegates and alternates. Officials said that is an increase from the 365 delegates and alternates who attended the 1992 convention in New York.

Roughly one of every 10 delegates attending the convention is a teacher and only the AFL-CIO's 800 delegates--representing a consortium of several unions--has a larger labor delegation.

"Why should it surprise anyone that we have the largest number of delegates from any single organization in this room," NEA President Keith Geiger said. "We have been under the greatest attack of any group. The Congress has gone after federal spending on public education to a greater extent than any other public good."

Teachers union critics have argued that student test scores are declining and drop-out rates are rising as pupils fail to master basic reading and arithmetic because teacher groups oppose reforms that would compel them to adopt skill-based instructions. Moreover, they have argued that teachers stand in the way of tougher discipline measures and embrace diversity and multicultural studies at the expense of improving performance on standard verbal and math tests.

Bob Chase, the NEA's president-elect, bristled at the suggestion that the NEA is blocking education reform.

"Anyone who says we're a hindrance to overhauling the education system doesn't know what this organization has been doing," he said Tuesday. The NEA has spent more than $70 million over the last 11 years on programs to upgrade curricula, institute new teaching methods and improve test scores, he said.

"Our desire is to improve education because it's for the children."

Clinton's Literacy Push

As the teachers rallied, President Clinton released the details of a four-pronged "America Reads" proposal. It calls for offering $300 million in grants for programs to train parents to help their children learn to read, $2.5 billion for after-school and summer tutoring programs, additional funding to extend Head Start programs for 1 million 3- and 4-year-old children and partnerships with private and nonprofit groups to encourage reading.

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