BOSTON – The Massachusetts teacher of the year refused to attend an event in Washington honoring the nation's top educators because U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige (search) called the nation's largest teachers union a "terrorist organization."
Jeffrey R. Ryan, a history teacher at Reading Memorial High School (search) who lost a friend in the Sept. 11 attacks, said he could not accept Paige's apology for his Feb. 23 comments about the 2.7-million-member National Education Association (search).
Paige said the remark was a "bad joke." But Ryan said: "Nazi death camps aren't funny. Lynching people isn't funny. Famine isn't funny, and terrorism isn't funny. I just couldn't show up and shake that man's hand after he made those remarks."
Forty-four teachers of the year attended Monday's conference at a hotel. The Education Department had arranged it weeks before Paige's comment.
The secretary made the comment in a private meeting with governors. He later apologized for his choice of words, but maintained that the union uses "obstructionist scare tactics." He apologized again Monday to the teachers of the year.
"I can assure you, I have nothing but the highest esteem for teachers and the teaching profession," he said.
The NEA called on President Bush to fire Paige. The White House said Paige's job is safe.
Ryan, 49, said his refusal to attend the conference was also a protest of the 2-year-old No Child Left Behind Act, which he called a "stealth tactic by the Bush administration to undermine public schools."
The law calls for expanded standardized testing, qualified teachers in all core classes, school choice, and several other reforms.
Education Department spokeswoman Susan Aspey said the administration has pumped billions more into public education. Had he attended the conference, Ryan could have expressed his opinion directly to Paige, she said.
"We're disappointed that he felt he was unable to attend," Aspey said.
None of the other teachers who missed the conference Monday indicated they did so out of protest, according to Aspey and NEA officials.
NEA spokeswoman Melinda Anderson called Ryan's comments "very eloquent."
Pennsylvania's representative was Joyce Dunn, a first-grade teacher at Shanksville-Stony Creek Elementary School in Shanksville, where United Flight 93 crashed during the Sept. 11 attacks.
"My school is a mile and a half from where Flight 93 crashed, and I thought it was a very poor choice of words, and he did apologize," she said. "I felt it was important to go to the forum because of the issue of No Child Left Behind and the implications of how it affects children were so much greater than Secretary Paige's comments."
Ryan has taught for 25 years. The Massachusetts Department of Education chose him as its 2003 Teacher of the Year.