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Van Roekel's Keynote Dodges the Obama Question

The NEA president's keynote address is always the highlight of the first day of the National Education Association's Representative Assembly.

This year's has got to have been a particularly difficult one to put together. A lot of delegates clearly have an ax to grind with Barack Obama, and NEA President Dennis Van Roekel needed to address that. After all, it's important to show your members that their dues are going toward something.

But while it's easy enough to get delegates fired up against a Republican president, it's an order of magnitude riskier to do so when it involves a Democratic president whose ear you need to keep.

As a result, the keynote address this year had Van Roekel twisting himself into a bit of a rhetorical pretzel, widely criticizing administration policies like the School Improvement Grants and the Race to the Top (and Congress in general) with some barn-burning lines, but treading lightly with the man himself.

Take this piece, for instance. Van Roekel pointed out that Race to the Top focuses heavily on test scores for measuring student and teacher performance, while during the campaign Obama had complained about fill-in-the-bubble tests. But the union president didn't actually call out the U.S. president for this apparent contradiction.

"Mr. President, your instincts were right—the path your advisers have laid out is not! We got a system that creates too few winners and far too many losers. Our members feel betrayed, and so do I," he said.

In fact, the only time in this speech where Van Roekel explicitly called the Race to the Top "punitive" was when he was paraphrasing a letter from the National Council of Churches of Christ that condemns the program.

Most interesting of all is that the speech downplayed the fact that Van Roekel and Obama are lobbying on different sides of the edujobs bill. The House-passed version of the jobs bill would take $800 million from some of the administration's education priorities, including $500 million from Race to the Top, to help cover the cost.

Van Roekel praised Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., for mustering support for the bill and called on the Senate to pass it. But as he very well knows, Obama has threatened to veto the bill precisely because of his strong support for—and apparent ownership of—the Race to the Top.

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