WASHINGTON (AP) – Education Secretary Rod Paige called the nation’s largest teachers union a “terrorist organization” Monday, 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.

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 lack of funding for demands included in the “No Child Left Behind” schools law.

Paige said later in an Associated Press interview that his comment was “a bad joke; it was an inappropriate choice of words.” President Bush was not present at the time he 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.

He said he had made clear to the governors that he was referring to the Washington-based union organization, not the teachers it represents.

“It’s certainly not appropriate to use those kinds of comments for 2.7 million members who are trying to do the best they can to make sure that all children have access to a quality education,” he said.

Weaver dismissed Paige’s distinction between the union and its members. “We are the teachers, there is no distinction,” he said.

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, a potential political force that has long supported Democratic presidential candidates.

Democratic governors called the secretary’s remark inappropriate.

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.

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 Gov. 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 Gov. Jim Douglas, a Republican, said of Paige’s comments: “Somebody asked him about the NEA’s role and he offered his perspective on it.”

Gov. 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 – I know he wasn’t calling teachers terrorists – but to ever suggest that the organization they belong to was a terrorist organization is uncalled for.”

When Bush welcomed the governors at the State Dining Room during brief public comments, he told them that rising political tensions of an election year won’t stop him from working closely with them.

“I fully understand it’s going to be the year of the sharp elbow and the quick tongue,” Bush said. “But surely we can shuffle that aside sometimes and focus on our people.”

“We’ll continue to work hard to help you. Because by helping our governors, we really help our people,” he said.

Bush spent much of the first half of his opening comments on foreign policy and the war on terrorism, defending his decision to go war in Iraq and thanking the governors for their work on homeland security.

The president also defended his domestic policies, telling the governors that he strongly believed in his education law and that the tax cuts he championed were helping spur the economy.

The governors are in Washington for four days of discussions at the annual meeting of the National Governors Association, though the usual effort to build consensus was marked by partisan politics that Democrats said couldn’t be avoided.

Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack, chairman of the Democratic Governors Association, said that during the private meeting, Bush took only two questions, leaving little time for a full exploration of issues.

“It would have been helpful for him to have heard the discussions about ‘No Child Left Behind’ because there may be a disconnect between what he thinks and what we know,” Vilsack said.

AP Education Writer Ben Feller and AP Political Writer Ron Fournier contributed to this report.

AP-ES-02-23-04 1659EST

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