The U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday called on Congress to speed up its efforts to reform federal education policy and released a broad outline of priorities it says are crucial to student success across the country.
To turn around failing schools and reverse disturbing trends — one-third of high school students don't graduate in four years, for example — chamber President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue said politicians, parents and educators must remember who is at the heart of the debate.
"This is not about school superintendents. This is not about [Education Secretary] Arne Duncan or [former Education Secretary] Margaret Spellings. This is about kids that are getting screwed in the system," Mr. Donohue said at a news conference at the chamber's D.C. headquarters.
Just as several newly elected Republican governors have proposed, the chamber wants to overhaul the teacher tenure system and tie instructors' pay to how their students perform in the classroom.
"By rewarding longevity over performance, tenure policies often hamstring local officials' ability to ensure that students have access to the most effective teachers," reads a portion of the chamber's outline. "Federal law should encourage, not inhibit, state and local efforts to make changes in their tenure policies."
He was joined by Mrs. Spellings, who serves as president of the chamber's Forum for Policy Innovation, and David Adkisson, president of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
The Obama administration is pushing Congress to overhaul the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act before the start of the next school year, though it is becoming increasingly unlikely that will happen despite Mr. Duncan's grim warning that more than 80 percent of schools will not meet NCLB guidelines this year.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee plans to introduce a bill before summer. Rep. John Kline, Minnesota Republican and chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has said he won't conform to the administration's timeline but expects the committee to begin its work on the reform bill soon.
The chamber is urging House and Senate leaders to be sure when crafting their respective bills that the legislation maintains "rigorous accountability provisions," provides choices for parents such as free tutoring and more access to charter schools and makes major changes to how teachers and school administrators are paid.
Despite NCLB coming under increasing fire from both sides of the aisle, Mrs. Spellings stood by it, arguing it has helped hold schools accountable and allows state leaders to more easily identify schools that aren't getting the job done.
"We've learned a lot in the last 10 years, and we ought to act on what we've learned," she said.
The chamber also wants states and school districts to have greater authority to intervene in low-performing schools, including more power to close them as a last resort.
Such drastic steps may be necessary, Mr. Donohue said, because many schools simply aren't producing students capable of filling positions in today's job market.
"Education, by far, is the number one issue in the business community in Kentucky," Mr. Adkisson said, explaining why the chamber is paying great attention to the issue and will aggressively lobby Congress during the reform process.
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