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Drawing Attention to Schools

'House parties' aim to mobilize guests in cause of education -- and against new federal law.

September 26, 2004|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

The house party in the Hollywood Hills was billed as a nonpartisan "mobilization" to cast attention on the nation's troubled public schools.

Actress Helen Hunt, commentator Arianna Huffington and others chatted about the need to hire more teachers and restore arts education as they sipped Merlot and nibbled potato pancakes with smoked salmon.

But behind the house party, and scores of others around the country organized last week by the National Education Assn., was a not-so-subtle message: President Bush and his signature education law, the No Child Left Behind Act, are failing the nation's schools.

Leaders of the nation's largest teachers union made no effort to hide their disdain for the 2-year-old education law, which has come under fire from liberals and conservatives alike for its reliance on testing and its sometimes rigid rules about teacher qualifications, among other things.

"This law is practically impossible to implement. We told them it's not going to work," NEA President Reg Weaver told about 100 producers, screenwriters, directors and others assembled Wednesday night on a backyard patio in the Hollywood Hills.

Bush's reelection campaign fired back, accusing the NEA and other organizations involved in the effort -- including the liberal online advocacy group MoveOn.org -- of politicizing education.

"We wish the NEA would commit itself to improving student achievement rather than hosting political rallies," said Tracey Schmitt, a spokeswoman for Bush's reelection campaign.

Organizers of the National Mobilization for Great Public Schools staged about 3,700 house parties in all 50 states.

The organizers -- including the NAACP National Voter Fund, the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute, the Campaign for America's Future and the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now -- described themselves as "a coalition of pro-public education groups." They referred to the house parties as "nonpartisan issue-based events."

The idea, they said, was to reengage teachers, parents and others in public education in hopes of elevating the issue in the minds of voters and politicians.

The house parties were a first step. At the events, guests were urged to sign petitions calling on Congress and the president to increase school funding. They were encouraged to call members of Congress later this month to demand the same. And they were advised to register friends to vote.

The idea of greater involvement in education made for lively conversation at Karen and Rodolfo Cancino's home in San Francisco, where 15 people -- most of them current or former teachers -- gathered.

"I'm very concerned about making sure everyone is educated and about the social issues that relate to education -- not just test scores but diversity itself," said Cathy Kornblith, a former private investigator who volunteers at a nearby high school.

Some of the partygoers assailed the No Child Left Behind Act.

"I think it's a farce," said Rodolfo Cancino, who taught middle and high school for 35 years. "They have certain expectations ... and yet they aren't funding [the schools] anywhere near to adequately."

In Los Angeles, teachers union leaders also pounded away at No Child Left Behind.

Barbara Kerr, president of the California Teachers Assn., rephrased the law into a joke, to the delight of the guests.

"California schools need help from No Child Left Untested," she told the crowd, which erupted in applause. "All of us know that No Child Left Behind is hurting our children's self-esteem. It's making our next generation one-dimensional."

The state and national teachers unions have waged a sometimes vitriolic campaign against the education law since it went into effect in 2002. They have argued that the Bush administration has underfunded the reform, also complaining that the measure takes a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching students with myriad abilities -- accusations the Bush camp denies.

Education analysts saw much of the same rhetoric in last week's mobilization, even as union leaders insisted that their effort was merely designed to foster greater public input into one of the nation's most pressing domestic policy matters.

"The idea that it's nonpartisan doesn't pass the laugh test," Tom Loveless, director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, said of the house parties.

"If they really wanted it to be nonpartisan, they would have scheduled it in December," after the presidential election. The NEA has endorsed Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee.

For some guests, particularly at the Hollywood Hills get-together, the union message about No Child Left Behind rang true. Many said that federal and state policymakers must make public schools their top priority and ensure that teachers and classrooms receive adequate resources to get the job done.

Even so, most people seemed less focused on politics and more interested in the plight of schools, especially after hearing from one speaker, a Los Angeles mother, who told of the decrepit conditions in her children's school.

David Silverman, an animation director on "The Simpsons" television show, said he was moved by the school stories -- and that he planned to find his own way to contribute. "It seems obvious the more you have uneducated people, the more you'll have crime," he said. "And crime is an expensive operation."

As the evening wound down, satisfied union leaders declared victory -- at least initially.

Weaver, the NEA president, said he was proud to have brought so many people together to talk about "something actually important."

And that, he said, was education.

Times special correspondent Marisa Lagos contributed to this report.

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