Teachers press their case as education debate heats up

''Teachers can't sit back and expect support to be there,'' says Steven L. Green, a high school Spanish teacher from Silverdale, Wash. ''I view it as my professional obligation to be here and help shape political positions on issues.''

''Here'' is at the national convention of the National Education Association (NEA), which has brought together 8,000 teachers from all parts of the United States. In this convention hall, as in the faculty room back home, discussion swirls around merit pay, the need for higher academic standards, tuition tax credits - the issues that are pushing education toward the top of the nation's political agenda.

''To get better things in my classroom, you have to go through state and local officials. So where do you draw the line between a quality of education issue and a political one?'' asks Louis Basilico, a seventh grade English and social studies teacher from Omaha, Neb.

For the public at large, ''there are two types of politically active teachers ,'' says Mr. Basilico. ''Those who just want more money or are on a power trip, and those who go through the political process because they have to, to achieve educational goals.''

But all politically active teachers often get lumped together when the problems of public education are thrust into the limelight, say educators here. Their prime concern is that teachers be seen as part of the solution, rather than shunted aside as ''political'' scapegoats.

''Just look at the politics over education in the past few months since the National Commission on Excellence (in Education) report. Should teachers be on the sidelines? I've been teaching 14 years, and with four kids I can't afford to be complacent,'' says Mr. Green.

''Our profession is heading for major change,'' says NEA president-elect Mary Hatwood Futrell. And ''with all the attention education is getting, if teachers don't seize the initiative politically,'' the change will be for the worse, not the better.

A major power in politics, NEA members among the delegates at the Democratic Party's 1980 convention outnumbered any single state delegation.

The group has a proven track record of mobilizing vast cadres of volunteers to work for candidates - national, state, and local - in primary and general elections. It encourages members to run for office and to be active in their communities.

In 1976, the union played a key role in winning the Democratic nomination for Jimmy Carter. And in 1980 it helped him fend off a challenge by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts. Plans for 1984 call for raising $4 million to assist candidates for the presidency and Congress.

One thing teachers here are emphatic about: The public is being given a simplistic picture of merit pay, for political consumption.

Navita D. Haywood, a teacher from Knoxville, Tenn., cites the recent merit pay issue in her state as an example of why many teachers must become politically involved.

''(GOP) Governor (Lamar) Alexander gave teachers three hours' notice before he proposed a bill to the Legislature on merit pay. The bill would drastically alter the way we work. Since the Legislature funds our job, we have to be included in the process.''

(The bill was narrowly defeated and opposition by the NEA state affiliate was given much of the credit. The issue drew national attention when President Reagan praised the Tennessee plan.)

NEA officials say they now are at least willing to discuss merit pay, a major shift from past positions on the issue. But they are against any plan that would give some teachers more money than colleagues with equal experience, lead to subjective evaluations of teachers and favoritism, and create more competition among teachers for the same amount of money, instead of expanding school budgets to include possible merit raises. These same officials are quick to point out that their qualified endorsement is a change brought about by ''political realities.''

''You'd have to take 10 to 15 percent of your best teachers and administrators and make them supervisors,'' says Lee Hay, the 1983 National Teacher of the Year. ''You'd have to pay them more than the rest of the teachers. You'd have to add to the number of teachers to make up for the good, experienced ones you took out of the classroom. No one's talked about this yet.''

But what about the NEA's stands on controversial issues that many people feel have nothing to do with the quality of education? These include American involvement in El Salvador, gun control, nuclear-arms proliferation, the ERA amendment - and even endorsing a presidential candidate. More than 40 percent of the NEA membership voted for Ronald Reagan in 1980.

NEA president Futrell sees a direct connection between many such issues and a teacher's work.

''Twenty years ago in Virginia, I taught only black kids,'' she says. ''Three years later I had both black and white children in my class. As a result of the war in Vietnam, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Laotian students entered my class. Salvadoreans, Nicaraguans, Haitians, and others are coming now. When I started teaching, you never had to be concerned if a child spoke English. Now, it's a major problem. Politics was central to all of this.''

Teacher of the Year Hay points to the increasing mobility of Americans as a factor impelling greater political involvement by teachers. ''When the majority of citizens no longer live in the same school district they grew up in, where is the local support going to come from?'' he asks. ''This fact is a major flaw in the thinking of President Reagan in pulling back the federal role from schools.''

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