Candidates vying to be teachers' pet

Eight presidential candidates came to Phila. to court the National Education Association. They said largely what teachers wanted to hear.

Sen. Barack Obama backed merit pay, an unpopular concept with the NEA, but nobody booed.

Fifteen minutes before Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was scheduled to speak yesterday, teachers in the audience were crawling across the floor, trying to get closer to the lectern for a better camera angle.

When the Democratic presidential candidate finally took the stage, cheers from the delegates to the National Education Association were deafening, and nobody booed or hissed when, near the end of a 40-minute appearance, Obama endorsed the idea of merit pay for teachers.

Merit pay is a no-go for most in the teachers union - members say they are concerned it would not be implemented fairly - but Obama softened the blow by promising he would not propose "arbitrary measures" to link pay to performance.

"I want to work with teachers. I'm not going to do it to you, I'm going to do it with you," the Illinois Democrat told the crowd of 9,000 at the Convention Center. As he spoke, cameras flashed around the hall.

That faint endorsement of merit pay, on the last day of the national assembly, was the only deviation from the buttering-up attendees got this week from Obama, six other Democratic candidates for president, and one Republican. Everybody was for higher teacher pay, financial incentives to lure teachers to low-achieving rural and urban districts, smaller class sizes, and a retooling of the No Child Left Behind law that requires states to measure student performance with standardized tests.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a conservative Republican, brought the crowd to its feet with his call for every student to have access to music and art classes in every grade. Many creative-arts programs nationally have been cut as schools try to hike student performance in math and reading to comply with the law.

"We're leaving a lot of kids' talents behind by denying them the opportunity to experience their creative self and to have a complete education," Huckabee said. "An education is more than simply a data download from an information source to a kid's brain."

He also drew cheers by proposing to "unleash weapons of mass instruction" and calling an uneducated population "a form of terror."

Huckabee was a novelty. The NEA has long been a part of the Democratic coalition, and union members made up 10 percent of the delegates to the party's national convention in 2004, the largest single bloc. Internal polling of the membership estimates that about 25 percent of the union's 3.2 million members identify themselves as Republicans, 48 percent as Democrats, and the balance as independent.

"I know there are some who think a Republican coming to the NEA is like Michael Moore going to the NRA," Huckabee said, "but I'm proud to be here."

In an interview afterward, Huckabee said he would be skeptical of merit pay for teachers unless there were a more thorough way to measure student progress than standardized tests. He did not sign on to the unanimous position of the Democrats who visited the convention that the federal government should "fully fund" NCLB, with infusions of cash to help states meet the standards.

"I don't want the federal government funding every part of education," Huckabee said.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D., Del.) mentioned an amendment he sponsored with Rep. Chaka Fattah (D., Pa.) to require equal funding for schools in rich and poor school districts. "If you want to hold every school accountable to the same test, make sure you spend the same amount of money on every kid," he said, to wild cheers.

Biden said that by repealing a tax cut that benefits the wealthiest Americans, he could generate $7 billion to fund universal preschool, establish incentives to increase teacher pay, reduce class sizes, and increase access to college with fatter Pell grants to which more middle-class students would be entitled.

"We know that college is on the verge of becoming a luxury good, unattainable to the middle class," he said.

No Child Left Behind, the Bush administration's signature education policy, was the villain for all the candidates but Huckabee, who said that it had accomplished "some good" by focusing attention on the needs of students but that the law needed to be made more flexible.

The weeklong parade of candidates before the teachers union presented a relatively rare campaign opportunity for the discussion of education issues, though the candidates appeared separately and did not debate. "Iraq has sucked all the oxygen out of the room and money out of the budget," Biden said in an interview.

View video clips from the candidates' speeches via

Contact staff writer Thomas Fitzgerald

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