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.”
“When it comes to reform and teacher pay, it´s bolder, clearer and more pointed than the language that President Bush or his officials used,” he said.
But some conservatives, despite applauding the words, were skeptical about the follow-through, noting that Mr. Obama already has committed in the stimulus bill to spend huge new sums of money on education but without having conditioned it on concessions from teachers unions.
“At the same time, education interest groups are about to receive a grab bag of education-spending programs,” Mr. Lips said. “So I don’t think the administration upsets the education groups too much.”
Mr. Hess complained that what Mr. Obama “was promoting was a stimulus package which will provide enormous new federal aid to schools without any quid pro quo.”
“Rather than conditioning tens of billions in new aid on pushing states to embrace these reforms, the ‘reform´ victories in this package are a handful of measures, totaling less than $500 million, in the House bill that address teacher quality and charter schooling, and a discretionary fund for the education secretary whose utility will depend entirely on what Education Secretary Arne Duncan might to do with the dollars,” Mr. Hess said.
Teachers unions sought to play down any impression of a schism between them and the Democratic president, also noting that the president was discussing a stimulus bill with huge new spending projects for teachers and schools.
“If charter schools and getting rid of bad teachers were the only things he talked about, yeah, we would be concerned,” said Joel Packer, spokesman for the National Education Association, the largest teachers union with a claimed membership of 3.2 million. He noted that as a candidate, Mr. Obama had said he wanted flexibility in Mr. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program.
“There’s nothing he said that would make us say, ‘Oh, my God, that awful; we’re going to have a big fight with him,’ ” Mr. Packer added.
The smaller American Federation of Teachers professed to be as much of a reform agent as Mr. Obama.
“There is no dichotomy between teachers unions and reform,” said AFT spokeswoman Janet Bass. “The AFT is itself a reformer, and we have supported many of the programs he talked about.”
Ms. Bass said her union supports “programs that help with monitoring teachers that have been identified as struggling.”
“And if there are chronic problems, we feel they should be removed after offering them help,” she said.
The AFT also favors charter schools so long as they are “innovative and fair to teachers.”
Mr. Obama’s words sound similar to those of D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who has become a pedagogical rock star to many education reformers who say teachers unions have a stranglehold on the public education system.
“We have to be able to remove ineffective teachers from their positions, absolutely,” Mrs. Rhee said after starting recent negotiations with the Washington Teachers’ Union.
- Clark Eberly contributed to this report.