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Obama Says Public Schools Must Improve

By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009

President Obama sharply criticized the nation's public schools yesterday, calling for changes that would reward good teachers and replace bad ones, increase spending, and establish uniform academic achievement standards in American education.

In a speech to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Obama called on teachers unions, state officials and parents to end the "relative decline of American education," which he said "is untenable for our economy, unsustainable for our democracy and unacceptable for our children." The speech, delivered in a venue meant to underscore the changing demographics of the nation's public education system and its long-term priorities, sought to bring a bipartisan approach to education reform by spreading blame across party lines for recent failures.

"For decades, Washington has been trapped in the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline," Obama said. "Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though it can make a difference in the classroom. Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early education, despite compelling evidence of its importance."

Obama's speech, his first as president devoted to education, struck a tone of urgency at a time when public education is slated to receive about $100 billion in new federal money under the recently passed economic stimulus package. The money may give Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan, more influence in reshaping a public education system traditionally guided by state governments and local school districts.

"The resources come with a bow tied around them that says 'Reform,' " Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, said in a telephone interview. "Our basic premise is that the status quo and political constituencies can no longer determine how we proceed on public education reform in this country."

Although Obama proposed many of the ideas on the campaign trail, he used the speech to link those prescriptions to the future success of the ailing U.S. economy. He encouraged experimentation in the public school system, including proposals to extend the school day -- to bring the United States in line with some Asian countries whose students are scoring higher on tests -- and to eliminate limits on the number of charter schools.

"A number of these things are simply encouragements to the states on matters that the federal government has little authority over," said Jack Jennings, president of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy. "But with this stimulus money comes the ability to talk more about these issues. And that is very powerful in itself."

The president signaled a willingness to take on influential Democratic constituencies, including teachers unions, which have been skeptical of merit-pay proposals. He said he intends to treat teachers "like the professionals they are while also holding them more accountable."

Good teachers will receive pay raises if students succeed, Obama said, and will "be asked to accept more responsibility for lifting up their schools." But, he said, states and school districts must be "taking steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom."

"If a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching," he said. "I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences."

Obama's support for ideas such as merit pay and toughened accountability for teachers is similar in tone to proposals placed on the table by D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee in contract negotiations with the Washington Teachers' Union.

Rhee, a Democrat, said last year that voting for Obama was "a very hard decision" because of the party's traditional reluctance to take on influential teachers unions. A spokeswoman said last night that Rhee had no immediate comment on the president's speech.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, a union with more than 1 million members, said in a statement that "as with any public policy, the devil is in the details. And it is important that teachers' voices are heard as we implement the president's vision."

Obama's call for states to adopt uniform academic achievement standards is likely to anger conservatives, who generally favor giving local school districts the authority to design curriculum and grading criteria. To make his point, the president said: "Today's system of 50 different sets of benchmarks for academic success means fourth-grade readers in Mississippi are scoring nearly 70 points lower than students in Wyoming -- and getting the same grade."

To encourage classroom innovation, Obama said, he wants the District and the 26 states that now limit the number of permitted charter schools to lift those caps. Such schools, founded by parents, teachers and civic groups, receive public money but are allowed to experiment broadly with curriculum. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says 365,000 students are on waiting lists for charter schools.

Obama chose to deliver his remarks at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, senior administration officials said, to emphasize the growing proportion of Latinos entering the public school system. He said a quarter of kindergartners in public schools are Latino, adding that they "are less likely to be enrolled in early education programs than anyone else." He said the stimulus plan includes $5 billion to expand the Early Head Start and Head Start programs.

The president also noted that Latino students are "dropping out faster than just about anyone else," a national problem that cuts across ethnic lines. He noted that "just 2,000 high schools in cities like Detroit, Los Angeles and Philadelphia produce over 50 percent of America's dropouts."

Regarding higher education, Obama said he plans to expand several federal grant programs, including increasing the maximum amount of a Pell grant and allowing it to rise with inflation, and ending "wasteful student loan subsidies." The goal, he said, is to make college "affordable for 7 million more students."

"So, yes, we need more money. Yes, we need more reform. Yes, we need to hold ourselves accountable for every dollar we spend," Obama said. "But there is one more ingredient I want to talk about. The bottom line is that no government policies will make any difference unless we also hold ourselves more accountable as parents."

Staff writer Bill Turque contributed to this report.

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