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Education chief's 'terrorist' remark ignites fury

Paige's apology does little to mollify teachers' union

Rod Paige
Rod Paige

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Rod Paige
National Education Association
Department of Education

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The president of the nation's largest teachers' union Tuesday blasted Education Secretary Rod Paige for calling his group a "terrorist organization."

Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Association, stopped short of calling for Paige to step down, saying the Bush administration should make that decision.

"What I want is a commitment from the Department of Education to work with the National Education Association to fix and fund the No Child Left Behind Act," Weaver said in a phone interview, referring to the 2002 law that seeks to overhaul the nation's public education system. "The way it is currently crafted, it is impossible to work."

Speaking Monday before the nation's governors in Washington, Paige referred to the NEA as a "terrorist organization" as he argued that the union often acts at odds against the wishes of rank-and-file teachers regarding school standards and accountability.

He later backed away from those remarks, saying he used "an inappropriate choice of words." But he still strongly condemned the "obstructionist scare tactics the NEA's Washington lobbyists have employed against No Child Left Behind's historic education reforms."

Weaver said the remarks were stunning.

"To have [teachers] called something like that, I believe, is intolerable," he said.

Of Paige's apology, Weaver said, "It was just as bad or worse."

"I believe, in general, that many of the policymakers, as well as members of the community, as well as our members ... are outraged that the highest-ranking education official would make such statements."

Weaver added, "It's a sad commentary in the U.S.A. 2004 that one cannot have a different point of view" than the administration.

He said he is calling on the union's 2.7 million members to contact Paige and other officials about the remarks.

"I'll be asking them to redouble their efforts to fix and fund this particular legislation," he said.

President Bush has not commented on Paige's remarks so far. An administration official said Monday the secretary was clearly making a joke but he should not have used the "terrorist" label in taking issue with the NEA.

David Gergen, editor at large for U.S. News & World Report magazine and former adviser for Republican and Democratic presidents, said the Bush White House must separate itself from Paige's comments.

"I think the president needs to issue an apology and separate out," Gergen said. "I've seen Cabinet officers in the past frankly walk the plank for something like this."

The administration, he said, "cannot live with this kind of statement about the largest teacher's union at a time when we're in a war against terrorism."

Democrats have assailed Bush's education bill on the campaign trail, and Paige's comments are sure to stoke the fires of education debate.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie said Paige apologized for his remarks and that it's time to move on to other issues.

"The important thing is he regrets his choice of words," Gillespie said on NBC's "Today" show. "The people in the room said it was a failed attempt to make a joke. It was a bad joke. He apologized for it."

But some won't easily forget the remarks, said Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe.

"It is outrageous that the secretary of education, Ronald Paige, called the NEA, which is an organization of 2.7 million teachers, a terrorist organization," he said.

The NEA has been pushing for changes in the No Child Left Behind legislation, saying the law as currently structured has "more focus on paperwork, bureaucracy and testing than it does on" making sure states have the necessary resources, Weaver said.

For instance, the NEA contends that the bill falls $33 billion short of the funding promised when it was initially signed into law. In fiscal year 2005 alone, the NEA said, the budget falls $9.4 billion short.

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