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Education Reporter

Presidential Candidates Address NEA Convention

This year's annual Convention of the National Education Association over the Fourth of July in Philadelphia celebrated NEA's 150th anniversary with 9,000 delegates attending. Eager to garner the favor of the 3.2 million-member teachers union, eight 2008 presidential candidates spoke to the NEA delegates about their education ideas and policies.

Sen. Joe Biden: "You've got to be selling drugs or something to work your way through" college, Biden told the crowd. In a statement to the NEA he wrote, "I support moving toward a 16-year public school system where every parent who wants to can send their child to preschool and where every student goes on to at least two years of higher education. There are 4 million 4-year-olds in the U.S. and 4 million 3-year-olds. We should have a preschool system that accommodates them all."

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton vowed to fight school vouchers "with every breath in my body," saying that such school choice programs would lead to an "erosion of our democracy." Clinton called for universal preschool for four-year-olds.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd: "Once we have graduated our children from world class public schools, the federal government will ensure that no student is denied their dream of attending college simply because of cost."

Former Sen. John Edwards: "When the President of the United States has a plan called No Child Left Behind, and then he doesn't fund it, was it ever intended to leave no child behind? Or was it intended as an excuse to move away from public schools and to move to vouchers?" Edwards proposed that the federal government pay college tuition for all students willing to work ten hours a week.

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich: "I want to see education not only begin with a universal prekindergarten, but to fully fund education, all the way through to and including college. The money is there to make sure our children have a fully funded college education, two and four years." Kucinich wrote in a statement to the NEA that he advocates "a universal prekindergarten system, which will provide year-around daycare for children ages 3-5." He wants an "educational system which is based on the whole child, on his or her health, nutrition, and social circumstances." Kucinich also proposed a "Department of Peace and Nonviolence," which "will teach children principles of nonviolent conflict resolution, peer mediation, and mutuality at a very early age."

Sen. Barack Obama: "The arrival of nine little children at a Little Rock school made real the decision that in America, separate could never be equal. And no matter what the Supreme Court said last week, that's still true today. . . . The ideal of a public education has always been at the heart of the American promise. It's why we are committed to fixing and improving our public schools instead of abandoning them and passing out vouchers. . . . In the coming weeks, I'll be laying out the specific details of my plan to invest billions of new dollars into the teaching profession."

Gov. Bill Richardson: "As president, I will work with states to raise teachers' average minimum wage to $40,000 a year."

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee: "If indeed an uneducated population is a form of terror we cannot possibly tolerate, then today I would like to propose that we would unleash weapons of mass instruction." Huckabee, the lone Republican to speak to the NEA, received a surprisingly cordial reception, which the Philadelphia Daily News opined was "rooted in part in the novelty of a Reublican paying his respects."

All candidates criticized No Child Left Behind, agreeing with the ubiquitous NEA T-shirt slogan, "A Child Is More Than a Test Score." Most of the seven Democrats called for the federal government to fully fund NCLB, although they said the law needs to be completely reinvented and rewritten first.

Most candidates panned the recent Supreme Court decision on race as a determining factor in school placement (see brief). Other areas of agreement among most candidates included raising teacher pay "across the board," funding pre-K education, and helping to control or mitigate the cost of college through federal programs.

All candidates described visions of increasing federal control of and fiscal involvement in public schools. They were running for the NEA's endorsement and support. Although warm toward all candidates, the audience seemed to applaud and photograph Barack Obama most enthusiastically of all.

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