NEA to push school funding

The teachers union is meeting in Philadelphia. Visits by 8 presidential candidates are planned.

So far, the 2008 presidential campaign has been dominated by Iraq.

That's hardly surprising, as countless polls have found voters most worried about the war and, more broadly, national security in an age of terrorism.

Beginning tomorrow, National Education Association president Reg Weaver will have a chance to try to steer the conversation to issues of public education as seven Democratic candidates and one Republican visit Philadelphia to address the annual national convention of the teachers union.

More than 9,000 delegates from around the nation are expected at the gathering, which began last week with committee meetings and continues through Thursday.

High on the union's political agenda: Changes to the federal No Child Left Behind act, the 2001 law that imposes strict performance standards on schools and allows students to transfer from those deemed to be "failing." The law is up for reauthorization this year in Congress.

Weaver said the NEA wanted the law, among other things, to allow multiple measures of student progress in schools, rather than the current reliance on a single high-stakes test. It also favors funding for smaller class sizes and incentives to place more "highly qualified" teachers in classrooms - as well as bonuses to bring teacher salaries in poor urban and rural schools closer to the pay in prosperous suburban ones.

"These schools are being labeled in negative terms, being punished," Weaver said. "Let's identify success."

More broadly, Weaver said he wanted to "start the conversation" with the presidential candidates about funding inequities between rich and poor school districts.

Since the federal government now contributes just nine cents of every dollar spent on education - most funding comes from state and local taxes - that would be sure to involve more federal spending.

"I'm going to take it to 'em," Weaver said.

"Nobody wants to tackle it because it means you're going to have to deal with trying to get more revenue for these kids," he said. "But if in fact you're going to expect the kids in the suburban area, the kids in the rural area, and the kids in the urban area to have the same chance, then they have to have . . . the resources."

In Pennsylvania, Gov. Rendell has ordered a "costing-out" study to establish a minimum funding level for a good public-school education. The study also will determine how much additional money districts will need if they are small, rural, urban or impoverished, or if they have a high number of special-education students or limited-English speakers.

The state now funds a little more than 37 percent of kindergarten-through-12th-grade education in Pennsylvania, down from close to 50 percent in the early 1990s. The wealthiest districts spend about 21/2 times more per student than the poorest districts.

At the convention, delegates will hear from Democrats Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York; Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois; Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware; former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina; New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson; Sen. Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut; and Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio.

Weaver said all the Republican presidential candidates had been invited, but only former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee had accepted.

Huckabee approved a sales-tax increase that greatly increased school funding in Arkansas after the state's Supreme Court ruled that disparities between rich and poor districts violated the state constitution.

A Gallup poll last month found that 34 percent of voters cited the Iraq war as the most important problem facing the country, followed by immigration, named by 15 percent. Seven percent were most worried about fuel prices, while 6 percent said the economy in general was the most serious issue.

Education ranked eighth on the list, named by 5 percent as the most important issue. The Gallup poll, based on telephone interviews with 1,007 adults, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Other polls have shown that education carries more weight with Democrats. An April Pew survey found it was the decisive issue for 12 percent of members of that party, but only for 5 percent of Republicans.

The NEA, with 3.2 million members, has long been a bulwark of the Democratic Party, providing volunteers, money and votes. Any of the candidates would dearly love to have its support. Weaver said the NEA would make an endorsement decision later in the year.

During a debate Thursday at Howard University in Washington on issues facing black Americans, several of the candidates addressed education.

"When you have a bill called No Child Left Behind, you can't leave the money behind," Obama said, drawing applause.


Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald at 215-854-2718 or tfitzgerald@phillynews.com.