A federal lawmaker has joined the heads of two grassroots political organizations in launching an online petition seeking the removal of Education Secretary Rod Paige.

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., Campaign for America’s Future Co-director Robert Borosage, and MoveOn.org’s Peter Schurman have created a web site, www.firepaige.org, asking President Bush to fire Paige for calling the nation’s largest teachers union a “terrorist organization.” At press time, the site reportedly had more than 200,000 unique signatures.

Paige, who made his comment in a private meeting with governors Feb. 23, later apologized for his choice of words but maintained the National Education Association (NEA) uses “obstructionist scare tactics” in its fight over the nation’s education law.

Reg Weaver, president of the union of 2.7 million teachers and other school workers, told the Associated Press that educators deserve more than “unfair labels and mean-spirited apologies.”

“Our members say that once again this national leader has insulted them, this time beyond repair, with words filled with hatred–and merely because they raised legitimate concerns about the president’s so-called No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law,” Weaver said.

The online petition was announced March 8 in a conference call with reporters moments before Bush attended a rodeo in Paige’s hometown on a campaign fundraising trip to Houston. The NEA had nothing to do with the initiative, but an NEA spokesman told eSchool News the group is “thankful for the support on this issue.”

“Our members are outraged about [Paige’s] comments, but we are more focused on getting more flexibility out of [NCLB],” NEA’s Daniel Kaufman said. “We support the goals of the law, but we need more flexibility and resources to make it happen.”

Toby Chaudhuri, communications director for the Campaign for America’s Future, said the response to the petition so far has been “overwhelming.”

“We hoped to gather 50,000 to 100,000 electronic signatures. Within 24 hours, we gathered twice that amount,” Chaudhuri said. “Parents, teachers, and students across the country are outraged that the Bush administration is attacking teachers instead of listening to them to ensure a high-quality public education to every child. As a nation, we must listen to teachers to improve the education our children receive, not attack them.”

White House officials did not respond to an eSchool News reporter’s repeated telephone calls before press time. But a Bush administration official told the Associated Press before the online petition was launched that Paige’s job was safe.

The flap comes as the Bush administration faces increasing state opposition to NCLB, widely considered the most significant federal education act since Congress approved its original version in 1965. The law, approved in bipartisan fashion, requires a range of testing, teaching, and school-choice changes to help children succeed.

Paige has spoken at length about his agency’s efforts to help states and schools understand the complex law, but his feud with the NEA is no secret. The union–a reliable supporter of the Democratic Party–plans to sue the Bush administration over funding of the law and wants changes in how it is enforced.

Included in the 100-word statement that his staff characterized as an apology was Paige’s assertion that “the NEA’s high-priced Washington lobbyists have made no secret that they will fight against bringing real, rock-solid improvements in the way we educate our children regardless of skin color, accent, or where they live.”

Links:

U.S. Department of Education
http://www.ed.gov

National Education Association
http://www.nea.org

Campaign for America’s Future
http://ourfuture.org

U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum
http://www.house.gov/mccollum

The White House
http://www.whitehouse.gov

Text of online petition:

“Mr. President,

“We the undersigned Americans demand that you fire your Secretary of Education, Rod Paige.

“Teachers aren’t terrorists. Teachers and state legislators across the country are right to speak up about how your broken promises are hurting our schools. Your Education Secretary needs to listen to America’s teachers, not label them enemies. Paige must go. It is time for a change.”