Friendly Fire

President Obama says the U.S. must improve education to stay competitive in the world economy. Obama spoke about education Tuesday at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Video by AP
By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 11, 2009; 10:07 AM

When Barack Obama was running for president, he was often chided for being a conventional Democrat unwilling to challenge the sacred ideological cows on his own side.

Where, the skeptics asked, was his Sister Souljah moment?

But after 50 days in office -- a non-milestone that the cable networks insisted on treating as one -- it's clear that Obama is bucking the Democrats and their constituencies in several ways.

The latest example came yesterday, when the president called for merit pay for teachers -- a proposal that the teachers unions have been battling for years. The unions -- which give big bucks to the Dems -- are fervently opposed to the notion of using money as a gauge for rewarding superior teachers (and move bad teachers out of the classroom).

Although in any other field you'd want to reward your best performers, the union opposition has meant that merit pay has gone nowhere. The question now is whether Obama has the will, and the clout, to push such proposals through the Democratic Congress.

As the WP noted yesterday, many Hill Democrats aren't scrambling to embrace parts of their man's agenda. This includes his push to eliminate earmarks; to do away with crop subsidies; to means-test the Medicare drug benefit according to income; and to limit mortgage deductions for upper-income folks.

It's the classic Washington problem: each item -- say, farm subsidies -- might not mean much to the public at large, but a small, well-organized minority cares passionately about blocking any reform. With Obama garnering little Republican support so far, modest numbers of Democratic defections could kill these measures. And that would leave the president spending huge sums on his initiatives but not delivering the savings he promised. Or, in the case of merit pay, leaving him throwing lots o' money at public schools but not reforming the way business is done there.

"President Obama called for sweeping changes in American education on Tuesday, urging states to lift limits on charter schools and improve the quality of early childhood education while also signaling that he intends to make good on his campaign promise of linking teacher pay to performance," the NYT reports.

"His proposals reflected his party's belief that education at all levels was underfinanced in the Bush years and that reform should encompass more than demands that schools show improved test scores. But they also showed a willingness to challenge teachers' unions and public school systems, and to continue to demand more accountability."

The Washington Times has an interesting headline: "Obama to Build on Bush Education Plan."

"Taking on the teachers unions and building on his predecessor's No Child Left Behind Act, President Obama on Tuesday told states to stop limiting charter schools, to get rid of bad teachers and to improve rather than scrap standards and testing that were at the heart of President Bush's education agenda . . .

"But on the same day congressional Democrats introduced a bill to help unions organize, Mr. Obama broke with the traditional bond between teachers unions and Democrats by challenging states to fire bad teachers and reward good ones as part of a new 'culture of accountability' in schools."

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