President Reagan told members of the American Federation of Teachers today that he wants them to be partners in his fight to revive public schools, and took frequent, pointed slaps at their rival union, the National Education Association, which he accused of "frightening and brainwashing American schoolchildren."
About 150 of the 3,000 AFT delegates here walked out as Reagan began his speech, and there was frequent hissing and snickering during his remarks.
It was a rare audience for Reagan. The AFT opposed him in 1980 and talks as though it will do the same next year if he runs. It also is a labor group in which minorities and women are well-represented.
Reagan appeared to be attempting a divide-and-conquer tactic in addressing the AFT, the smaller of the two national teachers unions. He avoided several areas of disagreement, including added federal spending on education, merit pay for teachers and tuition tax credits, while stressing that, unlike the NEA, his administration may "disagree on some matters with the AFT but can still work together in mutual respect and understanding to serve a higher common goal."
"Oh, I know there's another pretty big education organization out there," he said of the NEA, which has 1.7 million members compared with the 580,000 in the AFT. "But it's my experience that dedication, open-mindedness and initiative count for just as much as size and it seems to me that in all three categories the AFT, like Avis, tries a lot harder." Reagan's offer of a truce with the AFT came the day after Albert Shanker, president of the union, gave Reagan's education policies a failing grade--no more than an "F plus," the plus for drawing attention to the issue of education.
Shanker Monday warned delegates, many of whom had booed mention of the president's name, to be polite to him today or risk fostering public sympathy for him in next year's presidential race.
"No, don't do that unless you want him reelected," Shanker said. "You do that tommorrow and it will go out in the whole country. Everybody's going to say, 'Look how the poor president was treated. These people aren't fit to teach our kids.' "
In addition to not mentioning the yawning divide of issues that separate him from both the NEA and AFT, such as added federal aid to improve schools, the president touched only lightly on an issue that has been the main feature of his many recent speeches on education: merit rankings and pay for teachers.
Both organizations argue that there is no fair way to judge teachers who work with different students in different schools with different facilities. However, Shanker has said the AFT is willing to discuss the issue if it will bring more attention to the need for "massive infusions of money" into public schools.
Reagan called for stricter school discipline and higher academic standards, and set a goal of raising verbal and math scores in the College Board tests by 50 points to compensate for the decline of the last 20 years.
The president extended several peace offerings to the teachers, telling them they are not at fault for what he has described as the "sorry state" of American schools. "It wasn't you, the teachers, who created and condoned the drug culture, sexual license and violence in our society," he said.
And Reagan listed for his audience points on which they are in accord, saying, "I am less deterred by the differences between us than I am encouraged by the important areas of agreement that we share.
"The AFT wants to upgrade standards, including emphasis on testing both students and beginning teachers, changing curriculum to strengthen academic requirements and increasing homework assignments. So do I. The AFT believes in stricter discipline codes in school, including provisions to remove students who have histories of repeated disruptive behavior. So do I. The AFT supports many aspects of this administration's bilingual education legislation which favors local autonomy . . . . "
Reagan then turned to reminding the AFT members of their longstanding differences with the NEA.
"I also want to commend the AFT . . . for its ringing condemnation of those organizations who would exploit teaching positions and manipulate curriculum for propaganda purposes. On this last issue, you stand in bright contrast to those have prompted curriculum guides that seem to be more aimed at frightening and brainwashing American schoolchildren than at fostering learning and stimulating balanced, intelligent debate."
The president was referring to booklets prepared and published by the NEA for use by classroom teachers that denounced the Ku Klux Klan and supported a freeze on nuclear arms.
After Reagan finished, Shanker said that his remarks were "a good speech, but it would have been better if he had changed his policies."