- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 4, 2009

President Obama sent an unmistakable message to the nation’s teachers unions and school administrators Wednesday during a speech at a Wisconsin charter school: Don’t stand in the way of education reform.

“We’ve let partisanship and petty bickering stand in the way of progress. It’s been Democrat versus Republican; it’s been voucher versus public schools; it’s been more money versus more reform,” Mr. Obama said. “In some cases, people have seen schools as sort of a political spoil having to do with jobs and contracts instead of what we’re teaching kids.”

“And this status quo has held back our children, it’s held back our economy, and it’s held back our country for too long. It’s time to stop just talking about education reform and actually do it.”

Mr. Obama cast education reform as not only a moral imperative but also a strategic necessity, as American students face competition for high-paying jobs from China, India and other parts of the developed and developing world.

The president spoke at James C. Wright Middle School in Madison to highlight an unprecedented move by his administration to make more than $4 billion in education grants available to states, but on a competitive basis as part of a program called “Race to the Top.” The money will be awarded to states that do the best job of meeting accountability standards drawn up by the administration.

For starters, any state that says teachers cannot be evaluated based on student performance must remove such “firewall laws” even to be eligible to apply for the federal money.

The White House also wants improvements in the quality of testing, in helping struggling schools and in retaining quality teachers.

“We’ve got to do a better job of rewarding outstanding teachers,” Mr. Obama said. “And I’ve got to be honest, we’ve got to do a better job of moving bad teachers out of the classroom once they’ve been given an opportunity to do it right.”

The president also raised the prospect of closing down struggling schools if they fail repeatedly — “we will take drastic steps when schools aren’t working” — and said if charter schools “are succeeding, they shouldn’t be stifled, they should be supported.”

While the nation’s two largest teachers unions — the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers — have opposed reforms in the past, they have begun to show some flexibility lately in moving toward such ideas as performance-based pay for teachers and administrators, as well as higher accountability standards tied to government funds.

The first round of “Race to the Top” grants will be awarded in April, and the second round will be awarded next September.

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