updated 2/24/2004 3:36:16 PM ET 2004-02-24T20:36:16

The National Education Association asked President Bush on Tuesday to fire Education Secretary Rod Paige for calling the union a “terrorist organization.”

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Paige, who made the comment in a private meeting with governors Monday, later apologized for a poor choice of words but maintained the union uses “obstructionist scare tactics.”

Reg Weaver, president of the union of 2.7 million teachers and other school workers, said Tuesday that those members deserve more than “unfair labels and mean-spirited apologies.”

“We have heard from thousands of educators who came home from their schools on Monday to hear themselves and their professional organization referred to as ‘terrorists’ by the top federal education official,” Weaver said.

“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’ law.”

Weaver’s statement asks Bush “to express his regret to the nation’s educators and demand that Secretary Paige step down.”

No comment from White House
The Education Department and the White House had no immediate comment. On Monday, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said, “The comment was inappropriate and the secretary recognized it was inappropriate and quickly apologized.”

Paige’s words Monday startled members of his audience, triggered outrage from Democrats and deepened the divide between the country’s top education official and its largest union.

Paige told The Associated Press in an interview that he made the comment in jest.

“I was making what I now know was a bad joke; it was a poor choice of words,” Paige said. “I was referencing the Washington-based organization in general, not teachers.”

Yet Weaver said Paige’s comments were pathetic, including the secretary’s explanation that he was criticizing the union organization but not teachers.

“I can tell you what my first response was: Scary. That’s really frightening,” said Diana Garchow, a special-education teacher at Highland Elementary School in Bakersfield, Calif. “It’s scary that you can’t voice an opinion in this country without being called a terrorist. ... I don’t care if it was a joke or what it was, that was a totally inappropriate comment.”

On Tuesday, Michigan’s largest teachers union also called for Paige’s ouster.

“Secretary Paige is acting like a schoolyard bully, resorting to name calling and insults. He needs to be removed,” Michigan Education Association President Lu Battaglieri said in a statement. “Thousands of MEA members have served this country honorably — and dozens are currently serving in Iraq today — defending the basic American freedom to debate and to disagree.

The flap comes as the Bush administration faces increasing state opposition to the No Child Left Behind law, 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 spoke at length Monday 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.

But Paige’s language drew a rush of criticism, giving Democrats election-year fodder.

“Secretary Paige and the Bush administration have resorted to the most vile and disgusting form of hate speech, comparing those who teach America’s children to terrorists,” said Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

'Grossly offensive'
A spokeswoman for presidential contender John Kerry called Paige’s remarks “inappropriate, particularly at a time when our nation has experienced the devastation caused by terrorism.” Kerry’s chief competitor, John Edwards, called Paige’s words “grossly offensive.”

The nation’s other major teachers union, the American Federation of Teachers, said it was “unconscionable and irresponsible for any public figure, let alone a U.S. Cabinet member, to undertake this kind of name-calling.”

But Gayle Fallon, the president of the AFT chapter in Houston who knows Paige from his work in that city, said Paige was merely being sarcastic.

“There were times when he’d pick up the phone and call and ask me, ‘How’s my favorite terrorist doing?”’ Fallon said. “The NEA isn’t militant enough to be a terrorist organization. They’re barely militant enough to be a union.”

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.”

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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