WASHINGTON -- Education Secretary Rod Paige called the nation's largest teachers' union a "terrorist organization" yesterday, taking on the 2.7-million-member National Education Association early in the presidential election year.
Paige's comments, made to the nation's governors at a private White House meeting, were denounced by union president Reg Weaver, as well as prominent Democrats. Paige said he was sorry, and the White House said he was right to apologize.
The education secretary's words were "pathetic, and they are not a laughing matter," said Weaver, whose union has said it plans to sue the Bush administration over a lack of funding for demands included in the "No Child Left Behind" schools law.
Paige said later in an interview that his comment was "a bad joke; it was an inappropriate choice of words." President Bush was not present at the time Paige made the remark.
"As one who grew up on the receiving end of insensitive remarks, I should have chosen my words better," said Paige, the first black education secretary.
Democratic Governor Jim Doyle of Wisconsin said Paige's words were, "The NEA is a terrorist organization."
Paige said he had made clear to the governors that he was referring to the Washington-based union organization, not the teachers it represents.
To that, Weaver said, "We are the teachers, there is no distinction."
Catherine A. Boudreau, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the NEA's local affiliate, said: "Paige's remark would have been ignorant and tasteless coming from anyone. Coming from the secretary of education, it is also incredibly reckless and irresponsible."
Paige's Education Department is working to enforce a law that amounts to the biggest change in federal education policy in a generation. He has made no attempt to hide his frustration with the NEA, which has long supported Democratic presidential candidates.
Asked whether he was apologizing, Paige said: "Well, I'm saying that I'm sorry I said it, yeah." In a statement released to the media, Paige said he chose the wrong words to describe "the obstructionist scare tactics" of NEA lobbyists.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, "The comment was inappropriate, and the secretary recognized it was inappropriate and quickly apologized."
Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, put it in stronger terms, accusing Paige of resorting "to the most vile and disgusting form of hate speech, comparing those who teach America's children to terrorists."
Education has been a top issue for the governors, who have sought more flexibility from the administration on Bush's No Child Left Behind law, which seeks to improve school performance in part by allowing parents to move their children from poorly performing schools.
Democratic candidates for president harshly criticized the Bush administration in statements issued quickly after Paige's comments were made public.
"We should have the utmost respect for our teachers, who are entrusted with one of the greatest jobs in our nation: educating and guiding the future leaders of our country," said Senator John Edwards in a statement. "To equate our teachers with terrorists is grossly offensive, and I hope that Secretary Paige and President Bush apologize for this crass statement."
Senator John F. Kerry's campaign said the remarks "are inappropriate, particularly at a time when our nation has experienced the devastation caused by terrorism. . . . Teaching is one of the most important professions in our nation and we should celebrate, not chastise, those who make such heroic contributions."
Democrats have said Bush has failed to fully fund the law, giving the states greater burdens but not the resources to handle them. The union backs the intent of the law but says many of its provisions must be changed.
Missouri Governor Bob Holden, a Democrat, said Paige's remarks startled the governors, who met for nearly two hours with Bush and several Cabinet officials.
"He is, I guess, very concerned about anybody that questions what the president is doing," Holden said.
Vermont Governor Jim Douglas, a Republican, said, "Somebody asked him about the NEA's role, and he offered his perspective on it."
Governor Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, a Democrat, said the comments were made in the context of "we can't be supportive of the status quo and they're the status quo. But whatever the context, it is inappropriate."
Paige, in an interview, talked at length about his agency's efforts to work with states over their concerns with the law. He said meetings with state leaders have erased misunderstandings and a tone of confrontation.
But he said some opposition to the law has been stirred by at least three groups that are "hard-nosed, highly financed, and well organized." Asked to name the groups other than the NEA, Paige declined, saying: "I've already got into deep water with that one, haven't I?"