- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2010

President Obama on Monday said the U.S. must get a handle on its high-school dropout crisis even if it requires firing principals and teachers at failing schools - a move vehemently opposed by the nation’s largest teachers union.

Mr. Obama said his administration will dole out $900 million in “turnaround grants” to fledgling schools that take radical steps to improve as part of an effort to ensure the U.S. turns out the highest proportion of high-school graduates in the world by 2020. At stake, he argued, is America’s global leadership in the 21st century.

During his address to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Mr. Obama praised a decision last week by a school board in Rhode Island to fire the faculty and staff at Central Falls High School, where only 7 percent of 11th-graders passed state math tests.

But that move - along with much of Mr. Obama’s turnaround plan - was harshly criticized by the American Federation of Teachers, a Washington-based affiliate of the AFL-CIO, which endorsed Mr. Obama’s presidential bid in 2008.

“We know it is tempting for people in Washington to score political points by scapegoating teachers, but it does nothing to give our students and teachers the tools they need to succeed,” AFT President Randi Weingarten said.

Ms. Weingarten pointed to a 2009 report by Rhode Island’s education commissioner that blamed challenges on leadership instability and not deficiencies among the staff.

Last year Mr. Obama listed education as one of three big issues he wanted to tackle, along with health care and global warming. But global warming legislation is stalled and health care is on rocky ground, leaving education one promising area in which he might be able to make quiet bipartisan progress.

Over the next five years, 5,000 of the nation’s worst-performing schools will be eligible for assistance under the administration’s turnaround grants program. To receive the funds, participating schools must either replace their principals and at least half of their staff, close and reopen under new management, close for good or completely transform themselves.

“We know that the success of every American will be tied more closely than ever before to the level of education that they achieve,” Mr. Obama said at the event hosted by America’s Promise Alliance, an advocacy group headed by former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his wife, Alma.

Before taking drastic steps such as ordering mass layoffs, Mr. Obama said governments should first work with principals and teachers to “find a solution.”

“We’ve got to give them a chance to make meaningful improvements,” he said. “But if a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show signs of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability.”

Mr. Obama’s proposal comes on top of $3.5 billion his administration has committed to addressing failing schools, particularly high schools with graduation rates below 60 percent. He noted that more than half of those who fail to graduate are blacks and Hispanics.

Mr. Powell’s organization is sponsoring a 10-year campaign, dubbed “Grad Nation,” to ensure that 90 percent of current U.S. fourth-graders graduate high school on time.

Though he cautioned that government cannot do it alone, Mr. Obama said the public sector does have a responsibility when it comes to education.

“Government can help educate students to succeed in a college and a career. Government can help provide the resources to engage dropouts and those at risk of dropping out,” he said. “And when necessary, government has to be critically involved in turning around the lowest-performing schools.”

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