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Why I Said "No" to an Invitation from the Secretary of Ed

Soapbox is an occasional Education World feature that gives educators a chance to express their views.

After Dr. Jeffrey R. Ryan, a history teacher already disenchanted with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, heard former U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige refer to the National Education Association as "a terrorist organization" several years ago, that gave him more reason to skip a meeting with the secretary.

Dr. Jeffrey R. Ryan is a history teacher at Reading (Massachusetts) Memorial High School and the 2003 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. He and Teachers of the Year from all 50 U.S. states were invited to a meeting with U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige in Washington, D.C.

By Dr. Jeffrey R. Ryan

There was some discussion about my decision to boycott a March 1, 2004 conference of the 2003 state Teachers of the Year hosted by U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige. Mr. Paige invited the 2003 class of Teachers of the Year to participate in an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington, D.C., to discuss ways in which we as a group, and teachers in general, could move to implement the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act with greater speed and facility.

"I call for NCLB's repeal, and ask my friends, colleagues, and all people with a true commitment to education and to the nurturing of children, to join me."

-- Jeffrey R. Ryan
Massachusetts Teacher of the Year.

I had misgivings about leaving my classroom to attend such a function, because I have serious reservations about the requirements of NCLB, and see the whole program as inimical to the interests of American children. NCLB is a pleasant sentiment disguising an egregious lie. In reality, it threatens to leave behind an entire generation of those we should be helping; punishing them with a policy that is inherently racist, classist, and full of contempt for the disadvantaged.

Nevertheless, I considered attending the conference so that my voice could be heard.

Then Secretary Paige uttered his execrable and vile remark about the National Education Association (NEA) being a "terrorist organization" because of its objections to provisions of the NCLB Act. To me, this was reminiscent of the most ugly and hateful traditions of American politics: a tendency (dating at least as far back as the 18th century) for politicians to equate legitimate political dissent with disloyalty, treason, and in this case, terrorism.

The Bush Administration has shown a frightening tendency to link expressions of disagreement with its policies to disloyalty to the country. Former Attorney General John Ashcroft proclaimed that those who did not support his Patriot Act were "with the terrorists." Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney have used equally inflammatory and irresponsible rhetoric in insinuating that those who do not embrace their dictates without question are somehow unpatriotic and un-American.

I did not feel I could justify taking time out of my intensely busy classroom schedule to meet with an administration spokesperson who had so callously attacked my profession, my students, and my personal honor. I sent my regrets.

In sending my regrets to Mr. Paige's office, I also made reference to NCLB as "hostile to public educationa disingenuous, cynical plan by which to attack the poor and the non-white." I wrote that because every act and utterance by the Bush White House team has indicated a desire to favor the private over the public sector. I call for NCLB's repeal, and ask my friends, colleagues, and all people with a true commitment to education and to the nurturing of children, to join me.

The NCLB, in an effort to emphasize accountability in education, calls for standardized, high-stakes testing in grades one through eight. There have been federal funds allocated for the program, but most of them go toward the administration of the tests, and school districts that are judged as "under-performing" are threatened with cuts in their funding. These draconian tactics will do nothing but destroy schools in neighborhoods with children for whom English is not a native language and where poverty is more familiar than it should be in a society as rich as ours. When those schools fail to meet the Bush criteria the NCLB disciples will be able then to declare that public education is a failure. I predict calls for privatization in the same way that Mr. Bush wants to farm welfare out to "faith-based organizations."

Add Paige's remark to this atmosphere. Since Paige's "terrorist" gaffe, he technically has apologized, but his apology amounted to little more than a weak self-justification of his original position. Paige has defended his remarks by stating that the NEA uses "scare tactics" to delude the public; the implication being that there is still something underhanded and nefarious in the union's refusal to support the Bush/Paige agenda. Such approaches are ungentlemanly and undemocratic.

I was particularly upset that Mr. Paige attempted to brush aside his insult by saying that it was but a joke. First of all, some things just are not funny and, in a civilized society, should not be the butt of any jokes at all. Terrorism is one of those things. I am not in any way suggesting a formal censorship; I am, however, submitting that if we pride ourselves on inhabiting an advanced civilization, some topics are simply not fair game for amusement among people of sound sense. Nazi death camps, lynchings, and terrorism are such topics

It was further troubling that Secretary Paige sought to dismiss his own mistakes by saying that he had apologized and we should move on. I believe in forgiveness and do not mean to take a self-righteous position here. On the other hand, apologies without an amendment of behavior or any evidence of change of heart are naught but empty words. Such is the case with Mr. Paige.