- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Taking on the teachers unions and building on his predecessor’s No Child Left Behind Act, President Obama on Tuesday told states to stop limiting charter schools, to get rid of bad teachers and to improve rather than scrap standards and testing that were at the heart of President Bush’s education agenda.

In an ambitious speech that put education at the top of his national agenda along with climate change, health care reform and the economy, Mr. Obama laid out new programs to get disadvantaged children younger than 5 into early-education programs, challenged students and parents to shoulder responsibility, urged schools to drop long summer recesses and promised more federal grant money for low-income families to send their children to college.

But on the same day congressional Democrats introduced a bill to help unions organize, Mr. Obama broke with the traditional bond between teachers unions and Democrats by challenging states to fire bad teachers and reward good ones as part of a new “culture of accountability” in schools.

“Let me be clear: 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 in a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences.”

The unions welcomed Mr. Obama’s commitment to more federal spending on education and said they see plenty of room to work with the president, arguing that they do share the same goals.

“We, like President Obama, advocate for improving professional development and mentoring for new and less effective teachers; a national investment in recruiting some of the most talented individuals into the field of teaching, as well as investing in scaling up innovative teacher preparation and induction models; and raising teachers’ compensation based on their knowledge and skills,” said National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel.

Andy Smarick, a former Bush administration education official, said Mr. Obama is also challenging the teachers unions by calling for an expansion of charter schools. The president said those states and the District that have laws on the books to limit the number of charter schools should end those caps.

“That sends a clear signal,” Mr. Smarick said. “Teachers unions in general oppose the widespread extension of charter school programs.”

He said Mr. Obama also embraced key portions of the No Child Left Behind Act by backing standards and testing. “Ten years ago there was still a debate whether assessments are good,” Mr. Smarick said, laying out the case for higher standards by calling out low-performing states.

Though the federal government has taken a bigger role in funding and pressing for changes, education is still primarily a state and local responsibility, and Mr. Obama generally offered challenges to states to raise their standards and to expand early-learning programs.

Mr. Smarick, who is now a visiting fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, said Mr. Obama can boost teachers’ pay by using other federal programs such as the Teacher Incentive Fund.

Mr. Obama offered the prospect of more federal money but said several times during his speech that money and government involvement alone won’t work.

“The bottom line is that no government policies will make any difference unless we also hold ourselves more accountable as parents, because government, no matter how wise or efficient, cannot turn off the TV or put away the video games. Teachers, no matter how dedicated or effective, cannot make sure your children leave for school on time and do their homework when they get back at night,” he said.

Republicans praised those reformist remarks, though they said an early test for the president will be how he handles the giant spending bill coming to his desk soon. That $410 billion measure includes a provision that could spell the end of the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship program that helps low-income students in the District attend private schools.

“The president should show his commitment to education reform for all students by rejecting this attempt to strip Washington parents of the right to choose their children’s schools,” said House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican, who said Mr. Obama should veto the bill.

In the District, public schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee has taken a similar approach to Mr. Obama in attempting to improve the city’s public education system, which is among the worst in the country.

Mrs. Rhee, considered an early candidate to be the president’s education secretary, has included in negotiations with the Washington Teachers’ Union efforts to weaken tenure protection and to tie teachers’ pay to improved student achievement.

As he’s done on so many other issues, Mr. Obama portrayed himself as searching for a middle ground amid hardened political positions. He blamed Democrats, who he said “have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom,” and said Republicans have refused to allot the money needed for public schools “despite compelling evidence of its importance.”

“So what we get here in Washington is the same old debate about it’s more money versus more reform, vouchers versus the status quo,” he said.

In proposing early action on education Mr. Obama is following the lead of Mr. Bush, who signed No Child Left Behind in his first year as president.

The law has met with resistance on both the right and the left, but does have strong backing from particular groups, including many Hispanic rights groups that argue that the testing has helped identify schools that need more help.

No Child Left Behind is due for reauthorization later this year, and Mr. Obama said Tuesday that he wants to put more funding behind the law. He did not speak specifically about other changes he would like to see.