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School officials, teachers unions scrutinize Obama's divisive education agenda

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 9:31 AM

DENVER - President Obama often professes his desire to shake up public education while also working with teachers unions. But a question hangs over this week's gathering of hundreds of labor leaders and school officials: Can he do both at the same time?

More than any of his predecessors, Republican or Democratic, Obama has pushed a reform agenda centered on teachers. He wants the good ones to earn more money and the bad ones to leave the profession. He wants test scores to count in evaluations. He wants personnel shake-ups at failing schools.

Accomplishing such goals often means confronting union rules that protect teacher tenure and pay scales based on seniority rather than student achievement. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday that labor and management can overcome hurdles through what he called "tough-minded collaboration."

But some analysts say the administration's quest for union support could dilute results.

"The political challenge is, how do you do this without alienating an important part of your constituency?" said Frederick M. Hess of the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. You could end up with a civil war in the Democratic Party. That's why what we've seen from the administration is a lot of two steps forward, one step back."

Administration officials say Obama's policies have spurred progress on a host of fronts, leading states across the country to take steps toward performance pay, charter school expansion and tenure reform.

Many Republicans say they applaud elements of Obama's reform agenda that are at odds with union traditions.

"I do have some respect for the fact that the president and Secretary Duncan have challenged their constituencies to go out of their comfort zone," said Tony Bennett, superintendent of public instruction in Indiana and a Republican.

At the start of the two-day conference here in Denver, Duncan pushed further into politically sensitive terrain. He said schools and unions should rethink policies related to who gets laid off during budget crises, an issue in many places. Critics of unions say that "last-in, first-out" rules too often force young teaching talent out of schools.

"My view is that we need to take a hard look at the impact of staffing rules, seniority and equity issues," Duncan told union and school officials from more than 150 school systems.

Union leaders are in no rush to abandon seniority, but they said they are too often typecast as enemies of reform.

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the 3.2 million-member National Education Association, said that test scores are a poor measure of teacher performance but that every teacher should be able to show evidence of student learning. He noted that NEA affiliates last year helped Delaware and Tennessee win large shares of Obama's $4 billion Race to the Top fund.


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