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Education Reporter

NEA Convention Delegates Oppose Voucher Bills
Union President calls Florida legislation 'a pure and simple disgrace'

Buttons worn at the NEA Convention
ORLANDO, FL - At the NEA's annual Representative Assembly (RA), more than 9,600 delegates from all over the country (some 365 fewer than last year) gathered to discuss the direction of their union. While there was no single burning issue comparable to last year's proposed merger with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which was defeated, the overriding issue that emerged was school choice.

Voucher Legislation
Florida's voucher program was signed into law by Governor Jeb Bush in June (see sidebar, this page). In his keynote speech before the assembly, NEA President Bob Chase called the bill "a pure and simple disgrace." Chase insisted that "giving out vouchers will not improve struggling public schools," and likened them to "applying leeches and bleeding a patient to death." He accused the voucher movement of aiming "to discredit, defund, and eventually destroy, public education."

Chase praised the Florida Teaching Profession-NEA for its fight against the voucher law. The NEA affiliate joined the Florida Coalition for Public Schools, which also includes the ACLU, the NAACP, the League of Women Voters, the AFT, and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, in filing a lawsuit against the voucher program.

School Violence
In his remarks on school violence, Chase found a different scapegoat for the actions of the Columbine killers. According to Mike Antonucci, director of the Education Intelligence Agency: "Mr. Chase's sincere anguish about the tragedy did not overcome his impulse to blame the 'run-amok marketplace' as one of the 'broader lessons of Littleton.' "

Chase charged that the marketplace "bombards youth with violent images, preys on them commercially, exploits them sexually, and at every turn, throws acid on their innocence." He quoted Harvard divinity professor Harvey Cox, who said "the market is becoming more like the Yahweh of the Old Testament, the Supreme Deity . . . whose reign must now be universally accepted . . ."

"And I would add," Chase expounded, "we all know this market god will stop at nothing in the name of money. Yes, the market is eager to grab hold of the public schools. It would love to do to teachers what it did to HMO doctors: turn us into profit centers, profit maximizers."

Antonucci reports that, when the applause died down after Chase's remarks, union Vice President Reg Weaver "resumed the business at hand by reminding delegates of the 'big giveaway' to benefit NEA's political action committee." Antonucci notes that, in past years, the raffle has included prizes such as new cars and vacations. "The irony was hot, but no one seemed inclined to strike," he observed.

While convention delegates offered suggestions for curbing school violence that included hiring more counselors and teachers "so we can make each kid feel important," Mr. Chase announced a program whereby "1,000 school districts will receive free satellite dishes and air time for original programming designed to help school personnel set up school security measures." The NEA resolution labeled "Freedom of Religion," however, which opposes "the imposition of sectarian practices in the public school program," including "a moment of silence" during the school day, was not rescinded. (See Resolution I-27, page 4.)

NEA Election Victories
In his keynote address, Chase praised Bill Clinton as "the best education president in history" and listed what the union considers its "biggest election victories" in 1998. He commended the NEA's New York affiliate for "helping to defeat Sen. Al D'Amato and replace him with Chuck Schumer, and the North Carolina affiliate for defeating Sen. Lauch Faircloth and replacing him with John Edwards." He vowed that "Jesse Helms is next." He told his audience to "forget the media hype coming out of Minnesota," and bragged that Lieutenant Governor Mae Schunk (D) was "having no trouble handling [Governor] Jesse Ventura."

NEA Resolutions
NEA's election and legislative victories have helped bring about "historic" increases in federal education funding, which have prompted the union to draft resolutions that call for public education programs addressing every conceivable need and targeting every special interest and minority group. These include American Indians, Alaska natives, Hispanics, Asian and Pacific Islanders, Black Americans, left-handed students, migrant workers and their children, incarcerated persons, at-risk students, gifted and talented students, limited English proficiency students, speakers of nonstandard English, students with disabilities, and adolescent parents.

Other resolutions call for school courses in multiculturalism, global education, career and vocational education, family life education, sex education, HIV/AIDS education, environmental education, conflict resolution education, and labor movement education.

Florida's Voucher Program at a Glance
The Florida program is part of a state education reform package that includes tougher standards for teachers, students and schools. Under the new law, Florida's public schools receive letter grades (A through F) based on students' performance on state standardized tests in reading, writing and math. Dropout rates, absenteeism, and the percentage of students tested also become part of the grade.

The formula for evaluation is the same for all schools. Parents of children attending schools that earn an F twice in four years will be eligible for vouchers to send their children to private schools.

According to the Orlando Sentinel (June 25, 1999), the Florida Department of Education gave 78 schools a failing grade in its first statewide report card. Of the state's 2400 public schools, 77% received grade C or below.

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