Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Obama Voices Conservative Views on Public Education

Obama calls for merit pay for teachers, longer school days

March 11, 2009

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama called for tying teachers' pay to students' performance and expanding innovative charter schools on Tuesday, embracing ideas that have provoked hostility from members of teachers unions.

He also suggested longer school days -- and years -- to help America's kids compete in the world.

In his first big speech on education, Obama said the United States must drastically improve student achievement to regain lost international standing.

"The future belongs to the nation that best educates its citizens," he said. "We have everything we need to be that nation ... and yet, despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short and other nations outpace us."

His solutions include teacher-pay and charter-school proposals that have met resistance among members of teachers unions, which constitute an important segment of the Democratic Party.

Obama acknowledged that conflict, saying, "Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom."

Despite their history on the issues, union leaders publicly welcomed Obama's words, saying it seems clear he wants to include them in his decisions in a way former President George W. Bush did not.

"We finally have an education president," said Randi Weingarten, president of the 1.4 million-member American Federation of Teachers.

Changes at all levels of school

There also has been considerable friction over charter schools, which are publicly funded but operate independently, free from some of the rules that constrain regular schools. Many teachers are concerned that such schools drain money and talent from regular schools.

However, Obama said state limits on the number of charter schools aren't "good for our children, our economy or our country." He said many of the innovations in education today are happening in charter schools.

Obama addressed the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a setting intended to underscore the need to boost academic performance, especially among Latino and black children who sometimes lag behind their white counterparts.

Bush's No Child Left Behind law aimed to close that achievement gap, but progress has been slow, and Obama says his administration can do better.

Broadly speaking, Obama wants changes at every level from before kindergarten through college. He is putting special focus on solving the high-school dropout crisis and pushing states to adopt more rigorous academic standards.

Some of his promises are already in the works: Public schools will get an unprecedented amount of money -- double the education budget under Bush -- from the economic stimulus bill over the next two years.

Obama also wants kids to spend more time in school, with longer school days, school weeks and school years -- a position he admitted will make him less popular with his school-age daughters.

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