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Public education in U.S. falls short, Obama says

The president's first speech on education may alienate some in teachers unions. He calls for more charters, higher pay for good teachers and quicker firings of bad ones.

March 11, 2009|Howard Blume and Seema Mehta

President Barack Obama strongly condemned the state of public education Tuesday, calling for more charter schools, higher salaries for effective teachers and the faster firing of bad ones, an agenda that could put him at odds with some longtime Democratic stalwarts in teachers unions.

"It's time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones," Obama told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington. "From the moment students enter a school, the most important factor in their success is not the color of their skin or the income of their parents, it's the person standing at the front of the classroom."

As a candidate for president, Obama treaded carefully on the politics of education reform, siding with critics of public education at some points but carefully preserving his relationship with powerful education unions.

His speech appeared to position him closer to the critics.

"Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we've let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us," Obama said in his first speech on the subject as president. "What's at stake is nothing less than the American dream."

His positions on charter schools and merit pay for teachers were the two areas that most broke from orthodox Democratic positions.

On charters, Obama called for eliminating restrictions that many states have on the number of these public but independent -- and largely non-union -- schools. "This is the most forceful I think he has been," said Marcus Winters, a senior fellow at the New York-based Manhattan Institute, which supports giving parents options beyond the traditional neighborhood school.

California no longer has a charter cap, but some local union leaders have said that the state needs one again, because charters are draining money as well as motivated students from traditional schools. The Los Angeles Unified School District has more charters than any other school system in the nation -- and dozens more are on the way.

The president's advocacy of merit pay for teachers drew immediate objections from some teachers and union officials. "It doesn't work. . . . You can't create an educational community by pitting teachers against each other," said Joshua Pechthalt, vice president of United Teachers Los Angeles.

"It's a bad idea," said David Rapkin, a South L.A. high school teacher. "It will give administrators in the district the power to play favorites using standardized tests rather than really educating students."

The president repeated some campaign themes, advocating wages based on which teachers are most needed, insisting, for example, that math and science teachers ought to receive higher compensation if they are harder to find. And the best teachers should earn more as well, he said.

Obama praised a South Carolina program that offers higher pay to successful instructors. That initiative uses "market-driven, performance-based compensation" through which "master teachers" can earn as much as $75,000, according to the South Carolina Department of Education. Funded in part through the locally based Milken Family Foundation, the program evaluates teachers on such factors as student progress, academic achievement and "performance demonstration."

A broad agenda

The president's broad education agenda also called for a longer school day and school year, better early childhood education, improved tracking of student progress, and consistent, high-aiming standards nationwide.

Because of reduced state education funding, all California school districts face larger classes and reduced programs, said Barbara Ledterman, a vice president of the California PTA. "How are we going to have higher standards with fewer support systems for our children?" she asked.

Obama's priorities will be funded in part by billions of education dollars in the recently enacted economic stimulus plan. Other elements will be taken up in the reauthorization of the controversial No Child Left Behind law, a bipartisan reform closely identified with the administration of Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush.

L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa liked what he heard, especially when Obama called for funding only programs that demonstrate success. "We can't continue to give federal funds to schools without accountability tied to that federal support," Villaraigosa said.

The mayor will meet today with Education Secretary Arne Duncan as part of a Southern California delegation that includes L.A. Unified School District Supt. Ramon C. Cortines and teachers union President A.J. Duffy. Among other matters, they will be urging the federal government to press California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for a rapid release of economic stimulus funds to schools and other local agencies, Villaraigosa said.

Obama praised the Long Beach Unified School District for "using data to track how much progress a student is making and where that student is struggling."

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