WASHINGTONâ€”President Barack Obama laid out a broad education vision Tuesday that includes expanded merit pay for teachers and more charter schools, ideas long troubling to teachers’ unions.
With his congressional agenda already packed, the president is not proposing a major new piece of legislation. Instead, he spelled out the goal of a “cradle to career” education system aimed at serving Americans better at every level. He said he would use the budget to expand programs that work and encourage voluntary action by states and individuals.
The president’s plan, which largely implements promises from his campaign, includes new incentives for states to boost the quality of preschool programs and easier access to financial aid for higher education. Mr. Obama also called on states to raise standards for student achievement.
Perhaps the most controversial step would increase the number of school districts that benefit from a federal program that supports performance pay for teachers.
Mr. Obama also called on states to remove caps on the number of public charter schools. Twenty-six states and the District of Columbia now cap the total, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
The president cast his proposals as an effort to move past the debates that have dominated education policy in the past.
“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,” he told the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early education, despite compelling evidence of its importance.”
Mr. Obama’s support for merit pay breaks with some in his party, who fear it can’t be administered fairly. The Teacher Incentive Fund currently supports 34 grant recipients at a cost of $97 million this year and another $200 million was allocated through the economic-stimulus plan. Mr. Obama said he’d like to see as many as 150 districts added, but the administration did not say what its 2010 budget request will be.
“It’s time to start rewarding good teachers, stop making excuses for bad ones,” Mr. Obama said. “If a teacher is given a chance or two chances or three chances but still does not improve, there’s no excuse for that person to continue teaching.”
Mr. Obama said that teachers who are rewarded for excellence should help their schools improve.
Teacher unions said Tuesday that they welcomed Mr. Obama’s overall approach and could support merit-pay plans as long as they are fair to teachers. The presidents of the two largest teachers’ unions said they were confident Mr. Obama would only support proposals that meet that test.
“This is a president who actually respects teachers for who they are and what they do. We can work many of these things out,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers.
Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said that merit-pay plans should be negotiated to ensure they are not run in an arbitrary way, and he cautioned: “If you pay one teacher more you have to pay someone else less.”
Mr. Van Roekel rejected another Obama proposal to pay math and science teachers more in hopes of filling the recruitment gap. He said a small additional payment will not change the financial calculations of math and science graduates who have more lucrative options than teaching.
The stimulus legislation includes money for education to be shared among the states. Review the breakdown, plus details on transportation and housing money.
Mr. Obama also used his address to talk about parents’ responsibility for the education of their children.
“Governmentâ€¦cannot turn off the TV or put away the video games. Teachers, no matter how dedicated or effective, cannot make sure your child leaves for school on time and does their homework when they get back at night. These are things only a parent can do,” he said.
Other aspects of the Obama plan include:
–Early Learning Challenge Grants to help states improve the quality of child care, including improving the quality of teachers. Incentive grants will provide aid for states to better collect data about programs, push for standards and increase help for the most disadvantaged students.
–Challenging states to voluntarily raise their standards in reading and math. As it is, certain states give students high grades for scores that would rate low in other states. But the president did not say anything about changes to the landmark No Child Left Behind law, which imposes federal standards on schools.
–For higher education, an increase in Pell grants, including inflation adjustments. Mr. Obama also wants to simplify the application process for financial aid.