- The Washington Times - Monday, February 16, 2009

President Obama’s blunt but little-noted statement last week that bad teachers need to be fired and that some fellow Democrats resist real change in public schools has jolted educators and education critics alike.

“It was unusual for a Democratic president to say that,” said Cynthia G. Brown, director of education policy for the liberal Center for American Progress. “I applauded when I watched him say it on television.”

On the right, the surprise in some quarters was just as great.

“For any nationally recognized Democratic official, let alone a Democratic president, to bluntly talk about the need to remove teachers for poor performance is unprecedented,” said Frederick M. Hess, American Enterprise Institute director of education policy studies.

The president’s education comments were tucked in the prime-time press conference Feb. 9 that he had structured to corral public support for his $800 billion economic-stimulus bill, which he will sign Tuesday.

“I think there are areas like education, where some in my party have been too resistant to reform, and have argued only money makes a difference,” Mr. Obama said, adding on the other hand that some Republicans say throwing money at public education doesn’t improve it and these Republicans want to replace public schools with private and charter schools.

After offering something to teachers and school administrators by saying that “both sides are going to have to acknowledge we’re going to need more money for new science labs, to pay teachers more effectively,” he fired what some saw as a shot across the bow of teachers unions.

“But we’re also going to need more reform, which means that we’ve got to train teachers more effectively; bad teachers need to be fired after being given the opportunity to train effectively,” he said, adding that “we should experiment with things like charter schools that are innovating in the classroom, [and] we should have high standards.”

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich told The Washington Times that “President Obama has potentially opened a very important dialogue about real reform and real investment in education. An important first signal of his real commitment to reform would be support for the Washington D.C. school-choice program, which has allowed the parents of poor children to place their children in schools that work.”

“If the president would back up his press conference words with a real step like that, he would force Republicans to join the dialogue,” Mr. Gingrich said.

Some saw in Mr. Obama’s words something they had never seen before: a sitting president of either party, let alone a Democrat, standing up for the first time to the teachers unions, which represent one of the most powerful Democratic interest groups.

“I have not heard that language before about firing bad teachers,” said Heritage Foundation senior policy analyst Dan Lips.

Ms. Brown saw possible tensions arising between the teachers and the president.

“The unions as a whole are skeptical of some of these changes - pay based on level of responsibility and on performance, for example,” Ms. Brown said.

Mr. Hess called Mr. Obama’s statements “important language.”

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