Refreshing talk on education

In a speech before the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, President Barack Obama embraced merit pay for teachers, spelling out a vision of education that, The Associated Press reports, “will almost certainly alienate union backers.”

“A strategy that ties teacher pay to student performance has for years been anathema to teachers’ unions, a powerful force in the Democratic Party,” continued The AP. “These unions also are wary of charter schools, nontraditional educational systems that they believe compete with traditional schools for tax dollars.”

But the president spoke favorably of charter schools, saying that where they work, they should be encouraged, and asserting that his proposals could meet heavy resistance in both political parties.

On charter schools, he said the caps instituted by some states on how many are allowed — Nevada limits both the number and the true independence of such schools, de facto — aren’t “good for our children, our economy, or our country.”

“Despite resources that are unmatched anywhere in the world, we have let our grades slip, our schools crumble, our teacher quality fall short, and other nations outpace us,” the president said. “We need to make sure our students have the teacher they need to be successful. That means states and school districts taking steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom. Let me be clear: if a teacher is given a chance but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching. …

“Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom,” Mr. Obama said, delivering the first major education speech of his presidency. “Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early education, despite compelling evidence of its importance.”

“Investment,” it must be noted, is used here as a euphemism for additional federal grants of money seized from taxpayers.

The reason it’s important to get our euphemisms straight is that the teachers unions, chameleonlike, have responded to the popularity of the concept of “merit pay” by coming up with their own version, in which entire schools receive “merit pay,” thus eliminating the personal incentive to do better should individual teachers receive a raise or bonus for tutoring their children to advance faster than those down the hall.

Of course, woven through the president’s refreshing rhetoric was more talk of spending more billions which the federal government doesn’t have — $5 billion more for higher testing standards, $5 billion to expand Head Start (which shows no impact after four years); money to offer 55,000 first-time parents regular visits from trained nurses; more money to reduce dropout rates; more money for “teacher mentoring”; more money for longer school days.

But as the president himself acknowledged, “As with any public policy, the devil is in the details.”

Much of what Mr. Obama said Tuesday sounds admirable — even a bit daring, advancing (as it seems to) the cause of common sense and real educational achievement, in the face of the self-interest of a powerful Democratic constituency, the teacher unions.

Unfortunately, the new president’s tendency to vocalize the right course of action, and then do the opposite — as when he vows to challenge the education establishment, but then bows down to the teacher unions by looking the other way as Senate Democrats dismantle a modest voucher program that has helped hundreds of impoverished and minority Washington, D.C., children escape their crummy public schools — requires that we qualify this deserved praise with a word of caution:

It’s all good news … assuming he really means it and is willing to expend some political capital to make it so.

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