PHILADELPHIA — Sen. Barack Obama rankled some at the National Education Association yesterday by expressing openness to performance-based pay for teachers, though he still received loud standing ovations from the nation's largest teachers' union.
"What I want to do is work with teachers," the Democratic presidential hopeful said, in explaining how he'd like to explore new ways of paying teachers based on performance rather than only a pre-set pay scale.
This idea of "merit pay" has long been strongly opposed by the liberal-leaning NEA, which has 3.2 million members and gathered some 9,000 teacher-delegates here this week for its annual meeting.
"He got too close to merit pay for a lot of people here," Kim Kimler, a kindergarten teacher from Vermont, said after the speech.
Mr. Obama — who plans to detail more of his various education proposals in coming weeks — had people leaping out of their seats in cheers when he criticized lack of education funding, defended public education, pledged to "fix" the No Child Left Behind law and called for higher salaries for educators across the board.
But he also endorsed the idea of paying teachers more if they agree to teach in high-needs areas or mentor younger teachers, and said "there should be ways" to work with unions on new ways of paying teachers in general.
He stressed, however, that he wouldn't base teacher performance on "arbitrary" test scores or force any new pay system onto them. "I'm not going to do it to you; I'm going to do it with you," he said.
This wasn't the first time he'd endorsed the idea — he has crafted a bill that would give grants to 20 school districts to work with local unions to develop new performance pay models. The idea has been gaining steam in some states and at the federal level, and some said Mr. Obama was wise to take it on.
Sue Parker, a special-education teacher from California, said states are dealing with it anyway, so, "I was actually glad that he brought it up."
Meanwhile, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee yesterday became the first 2008 Republican presidential candidate to address the NEA.
The crowd cheered him with a standing ovation after his speech, in which he told several jokes, demanded more creative ways of measuring student progress, insisted all students should have music and art classes and touched on the topic of security.
"There is another issue of national security and it is the education of our kids," he said.
The governor — who is far behind in polls and fundraising — also took swipes at fellow Republican presidential candidates who didn't show up. "Do they not think education is important or are they just afraid of the NEA? I don't know," he said to laughs.
He steered clear of the No Child Left Behind law, which is highly unpopular in the NEA crowd. Later he told reporters that the law needs improvement but has "more good than bad."
The NEA heard speeches this week from seven Democratic presidential candidates, including Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., of Delaware, yesterday. The group invited three other Republican candidates: Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain, of Arizona, who sent his regrets.
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