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The National Education Association, the largest union in the nation and a heavyweight in Democratic politics, endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. But frustration with the administration's education policies prompted the 3.2 million-member group to call for Education Secretary Arne Duncan's resignation last month. As kids across the country head back to school, USA TODAY's Capital Download talked Tuesday with NEA President Dennis Van Roekel about teacher tenure, student testing and charter schools. Question and answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: The NEA made waves at your convention last month by calling for Education Secretary Arne Duncan to resign. Why did you?

A: There's a lot of frustration out there with the testing, with the over-emphasis and the use of those test scores. ... There's just a lot of anger and frustration out there. ... As secretary of Education, they focused on him.

Q: In June, in Vergara vs. California, a California judge threw out California statutes that provided job protections to teachers. Duncan essentially welcomed the decision. Was that the final straw?

A: That first day when he said it was a solution to a problem, I think that did cause a lot of reaction. ... When they see in the Vergara case in California, that they believe that the solution to what's keeping kids from succeeding is due process for teachers — it's so misguided, and it's not going to change a bit for kids. There's not one piece of evidence or research that ties teacher tenure or due-process laws to student achievement. Why would you focus there?

Q: Former CNN correspondent Campbell Brown has formed a new group, the Partnership for Educational Justice, which supports a parental lawsuit challenging New York state's teacher tenure laws. She notes 91% of teachers are rated effective or highly effective but only 31% of kids are reading, writing and doing math at grade level. She asks, "How does that compute?"

A: She's assuming that there's a cause and effect. She believes that the percent of teachers who are competent is a direct correlation and a cause and effect of the students who achieve well. Teachers do make a huge difference in the classroom, but it's not the only thing. ... Her focus on that is so wrong-headed and misguided and not one student will benefit from that.

What we ought to focus on is, No. 1, school readiness. ... No. 2, we have to have high standards and a rich curriculum in every single school. We don't. No. 3, you have to focus on the learning conditions. We have schools that no politician or Campbell Brown or anyone else would send their relatives, their sons, daughters, nieces and nephews to those schools. And that's wrong.

The fourth area is a quality workforce. ... If there is someone who shouldn't be there, yes, they should be gone. But more importantly than that, we've got to change who comes into the profession. ... The idea that in this country district after district allows unlicensed people to be teachers of record is wrong. We would never hire an unlicensed electrician or plumber or doctor or lawyer. Why in the world do you hire unlicensed people to be a teacher of record to millions of kids in this country? It's wrong.

Q: Is it too hard to get rid of an incompetent teacher now?

A. In most states, it's three to five years before you even have a right to due process. So when you hire someone, you have three to five years to evaluate them, to assess whether or not you believe this is a career teacher that you want to keep employed. If after that five years you say yes, then they have a right to due process. I don't think that's unwieldy at all.

Q: Are unions in general and the teachers union in particular under new fire?

A: There are a group of profiteers who are looking at a $6 billion industry and saying, my gosh, we've got to figure out how to get our piece of that pie. So they're trying to privatize everything. And I think what we've seen is the private management of public schools, I there's enough evidence that says right now there is something dramatically wrong. The 'C' word, for corruption, is there. If the same percent of public schools who are not chartered and are not privately managed, had the same percentage of instances of corruption and misuse of public funds, there would be an outcry across this country.

Q: You were elected NEA president in 2008, the year Obama was elected. Have you been surprised by his administration's education policies?

A: Some of them, yes. ...

This economic recession ... came with such a vengeance ... and out of that came the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Part of that was about $4 billion in Race to the Top, which drove many of those policy changes. They wouldn't have gone that fast without those resources behind it, where it focused on using test scores to evaluate teachers. Student achievement should be used as part of a teacher's evaluation. But not high-stakes, standardized tests that are given once a year in language arts and mathematics.

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