NEA Proposes Minority Outreach, Higher Pay for Teachers

The National Education Association, the country's largest education union, says it has a strategy to improve America's public schools, including higher pay for new teachers. Reg Weaver, president of The National Education Association, talks about the "Minority Community Outreach Initiative."

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

Today, the nation's largest education union launches a strategy it says will provide solutions to the hardships of many of America's public schools, from a shortage of school supplies to a shortage of African-American teachers. It's called the minority community outreach initiative. Joining us now is Reg Weaver, president of the NEA.

Mr. Weaver, always good to talk to you. Thanks for joining us.

Mr. REG WEAVER (President, National Education Association): Hey, why thank you, and it's always good to talk with you as well, my friend.

GORDON: Reg, let me ask you this. You are in Los Angeles today. Your annual meeting is going on, and this has been the focus of much of it. And I think it's important to note it's called minority community outreach because, when we're talking about America's public school systems, we're really talking about, to a great degree, minorities in this country, aren't we?

Mr. WEAVER: That's what I believe. And I think that we know that the minority community, in many instances, they have a lot of concern about what's happening with some of the public schools, as well as with some of the educators that are there. And we know that the minority communities are being heavily courted by those who are not necessarily supportive of quality public schools. And so, you know, we understand that we do need to make the success of minority children a priority and to ensure that they have an opportunity to attend a great public school.

So, you know, we're working with a number of groups in order to try to get the minority community to work more with us, working with La Raza, working with the NAACP, the black and Hispanic leadership groups, the legislators, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, Tom Joyner. And so, you know, we're just going all out, you know, because the minority community know--you know, we know that, you know, public education for them represents the hopes and dreams for their future, and it represents a way up and a way out.

GORDON: Reg Weaver, I'm a graduate of the public school system. Both of my parents were teachers. I have done, throughout the years, many events, many of them with you, for public school systems. And I'm curious--What do you believe has to happen in order for America to really hear and do something about the problems that these school systems face?

Mr. WEAVER: Well, the one thing that I'm calling on is a covenant, a covenant with the nation to ensure that every child has access to a great public school. You know, Ed, there are so, so many good committed teachers to assuring a--great public schools for all kids, regardless of their abilities or regardless of where they live. However, if these teachers are expected to make these improvements, they need help. They need help from parents, they need help from policy-makers, and they need help from the public. And that's why I'm calling on this national commitment to make schools better.

We need parents who are involved in their children's education, who will show up for parent-teacher conferences, who will show interest in what's going on in the classroom, and will do everything that it takes to get their children prepared for school, and to reinforce their learning at home. We know that smaller class sizes, well-compensated and well-trained teachers, up-to-date textbooks and material and high-quality early childhood service--these are things that we know work. And so we need the help. We need the help of elected politicians who will provide human and financial resources in order to get the job done.

So once again, Ed, we are calling on the nation to help us. And your parents, as you went to the school, I'm certain that they provided you, provided the school with what they need in order for you to get the quality of education that you received.

GORDON: I know one of the things that you are attempting to do is to make sure that people understand you have to--I underline have to--put your money where your mouth is. You note that the average salary of a teacher straight out of college is just under $30,000--$29,733. You want to raise that. You believe beginning salaries should be at least $40,000.

Mr. WEAVER: Right, about $40,000. And people will say, `Well'--but when you compare what teachers make to some of the other folks who graduate at the same time, it's low--new accountants, $45,000; engineers, $47,000; registered nurses, $39,000; teacher, about $30,000. And the importance here is that low teacher pay comes at a high cost. We have 20 percent of new public schoolteachers leaving the classroom by the end of the first year, and almost half leave within five years. Low salaries are driving committed people, the kind of people that we need--low salaries are driving them out of the teaching profession. More than one-third of the teachers, who do not plan to teach until retirement, they blame low pay for their decision to quit teaching. With that...

GORDON: Reg Weaver, don't we have to make sure that we move beyond rhetoric?

Mr. WEAVER: You're right.

GORDON: One of the things that galls me...

Mr. WEAVER: You're right.

GORDON: ...is the idea that we talk about the children are our future. We've been doing this for years and years, yet we don't pay teachers the respect they deserve.

Mr. WEAVER: You're absolutely right. And good salaries help attract good teachers. And good teachers help students achieve at higher levels. But you're so right. People talk about what needs to be done, but when it comes to actually putting the rhetoric--to matching the rhetoric with action, then somehow the money is not there. We have money to do everything that we think is important for this country, yet when it comes to preparing the future, the people who are going to run the country, there seemingly is a hesitancy to do that. However, 88 percent--according to a Phi Delta Kappa and Gallup Poll, they found that 88 percent of the public would raise teachers' salaries to address the teacher recruitment and retention problem. You see, it's difficult to retain teachers if, in fact, you don't have a decent salary. It's difficult to recruit teachers if, in fact, you don't have a decent salary. So, Ed, that's the reason why we're stepping up to the issue of teacher salaries, stepping up to the issue of minority community outreach and calling on the nation for a covenant with us.

GORDON: Reg Weaver, you've also stepped up to the Bush administration and in fact said that the No Child Left Behind Act just is not going to work in the way that the president is suggesting. In fact, you have a lawsuit against that particular act. We should note that the Education Department filed late Wednesday in US District Court in Detroit saying that there is no standing to sue for this act and that the case lacks merit. Talk to me about that.

Mr. WEAVER: Right. You know, we filed suit based on a section of that law, 9527(a), which basically says that if, in fact, you regulate, you have to compensate. The government also is challenging our interpretation of that. But it's clear in the law that if in fact the government is going to force regulations on states and locals, then they have a responsibility to pay. And if they don't pay, it is not the state's responsibility and it's not the locals responsibility to pay for regulations that are mandated by the federal government. And so, yes, we did file suit based on that particular section.

The goals and the objectives of No Child Left Behind, they're good goals when you talk about accountability, when you talk about closing the achievement gap. Those are things, Ed, that we have been striving to do for years. But the way this law is currently crafted, it's not going to work as we would like for it to. It's underfunded, you know, to the--for the past four years. It's about $27 billion short. And I believe that the latest rendition of a budget has it about $800,000 short again. And so, you know, it's very difficult to do any kind of implementing the law successfully if, in fact, you don't have the resources. Additionally, there needs to be flexibility for states and locals to be able to implement this law. So we do want the law to work, but the way it is currently crafted, it's not going to work.

GORDON: Reg Weaver...

Mr. WEAVER: And, Ed, you have a whole lot of people that are now beginning to speak out. You have about 179 congresspeople on both sides of the aisle who have put forth legislation that is calling for some kind of modification in this law. You have two-thirds of your states who have passed a resolution, or who will be passing resolutions in their states, talking about the modification of the law. So, Ed, the important point here, it's not just the National Education Association who sees that there needs to be some modification to No Child Left Behind. A hundred and seventy-nine congresspeople, many of whom passed the law, are saying that there needs to be modification.

GORDON: And, Reg Weaver, one of the important things that you hinted on earlier, and that if you subtract the controversy surrounding the way he said it, but what was brought to light about a year ago when Bill Cosby raised a question of our kids, and specifically black kids but minority kids in general, being prepared for the world. We have to, at some point, address and, quite frankly, force the community to understand how important a quality education is going to be to young people in today's world, don't we?

Mr. WEAVER: That is absolutely true. And we must have our community to not be fooled by people who come to us dressed as wolves in sheep's clothing. We have to be careful of that. It's easy for somebody to come and say, `Well, we have this for your kid.' There will be the voucherizers, the privatizers and the charterizers who will come and try to fool our communities, saying that this is best for your kid. Well, they will come, but they're not coming with solutions for all of our children. They might be coming with solutions for one or two or three but not for the vast majority. That's what we do in public schools. We accept all children who come to us, not just some. We accept all children. And so if, in fact, we are going to be as successful as we would like, we need that covenant with the nation. We need the minority community outreach. We need to make sure that teachers are paid commensurate with their skills and abilities in order for the children to receive the quality public education that we know that they deserve.

GORDON: Reg Weaver is president of the National Education Association. He joins us from Los Angeles where the union will wrap up its annual convention today. And, Reg, as always, on the front line, and, as always, man, good to talk to you.

Mr. WEAVER: Good to talk to you anytime, Ed.

GORDON: Thanks, Reg.

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