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.

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.

Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle of Wisconsin said Paige's words were, "The NEA is a terrorist organization."

Weaver responded, "We are the teachers, there is no distinction."

Asked if he was apologizing, Paige said: "Well, I'm saying that I'm sorry I said it, yeah."

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."