Obama: OK, let's try education reform, then

The administration wants dramatic changes in the way states run public schools

By Vincent Rossmeier
Published July 24, 2009 8:55PM (UTC)
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With healthcare legislation continuing to stall, on Friday, President Obama will turn his attention to another area in need of reform: Education. In remarks he's set to give this afternoon, Obama will roll-out a new set of guidelines for how states can compete to receive education funding for their public schools. 

The administration has given the new education initiative a catchy title: "Race to the Top." Obama and the Department of Education have $4.35 billion in the Race to the Top fund, which was created and funded by the stimulus, to award to states in the form of education grants.

That money won't come for free, though. The White House is intent on tying those funds to a serious effort to reform public K-12 education. States that want to receive significant federal aid will be pressured to lift restrictions on the establishment of charter schools and to tie teacher pay more closely to student performance.

In today's Washington Post, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has an op-ed pushing the program. Duncan lays out the specifics of the "interconnected reforms" states need to try to enact to secure some of the billions of funds up for grabs, focusing on four main areas for educational improvement: Working towards implementing and accepting universal academic standards for grades K through 12; improving the monitoring of student progress; getting better teachers into schools, especially those in hard-to-staff and poverty-stricken areas, and fostering schools that are willing to make major systemic reforms, including the firing of teachers and bettering of school culture.

Duncan claims the new incentives will create a more competitive environment between states, writing ,"[S]tates that limit alternative routes to certification for teachers and principals, or cap the number of charter schools, will be at a competitive disadvantage. And states that explicitly prohibit linking data on achievement or student growth to principal and teacher evaluations will be ineligible for reform dollars until they change their laws."

These types of changes have many opponents and performance pay for teachers has become an increasingly contentious issue in education reform debates. For instance, Michelle Rhee, the head of Washington D.C.'s school system, has run into resistance from some teachers unions for attempting to tie a teacher's compensation to how well his or her students perform in the classroom.

Reform advocates also argue that it should be easier for school districts to fire bad teachers. However, the two national teachers' unions oppose lifting current state laws that restrict linking pay to student test scores, despite Duncan's insistence that states that remove such limits will receive more federal funding. And the teachers' unions remain a powerful force in Democratic politics.

Vincent Rossmeier

Vincent Rossmeier is an editorial assistant at Salon.

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