Obama unveils education proposal

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) unveiled an $18 billion education proposal Tuesday that seeks to improve U.S. schools in part by rewarding teachers based on merit.

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A key part of the proposal, unveiled by Obama in a New Hampshire speech, is a “career ladder initiative” that could allow additional compensation for some teachers.

Rewarding teachers for having a deep knowledge of a subject and for meeting school needs or high levels of performance measured against professional teaching standards “can encourage teachers to continue to acquire needed skills, enhance the expertise available within schools and improve learning for many traditionally under-served student groups,” according to background material provided by the Obama proposal.

Merit pay is controversial with teachers’ unions, and Obama appears to be drawing a distinction between himself and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) with the proposal. Clinton, who has received the endorsement of the American Federation of Teachers, criticized the concept of merit pay this week in Iowa, calling it “discouraging and demeaning,” according to a report in The Associated Press. By contrast, Obama last summer told the National Education Association, the country’s largest teachers’ union, that the idea should be considered, the AP report said.

Groups aiming to reform U.S. schools argue that merit pay is a vital way to improve U.S. schools.

“If you reward teachers who are better at their jobs, you create incentives for other teachers to be better at their jobs,” said Marc Lampkin, executive director of Strong American Schools, a nonpartisan campaign project of the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors.

The proposal comes with some risks for Obama, however, since he could lose support from teachers’ unions that are generally critical of merit pay. An Obama aide, in a background call, appeared to contrast this proposal with the concept of “merit pay,” saying this generally refers to programs that link a teacher’s pay to test scores. The Obama program emphasizes ways a teacher can get additional compensation, the aide said.

Background materials provided for the campaign said compensation systems should be “designed with the help and agreement of teachers’ organizations.” These materials also do not mention merit pay, but they favorably cite an initiative in Denver in which teachers are paid based on merit.

Obama would also provide $10 billion in funding to improve early education for pre-kindergarten children. He said low-income children in particular are more likely to graduate from high school and college if they take part in early learning education programs like Head Start and Early Head Start, which serves children from birth to age 3.

Overall, Obama’s proposal would spend $18 billion per year on early education and K-12 education, including for teacher training and retention. Obama highlighted a variety of offsets to pay for the funding, including delaying the NASA Constellation program for five years.

A spokesman for the Republican National Committee (RNC) criticized the NASA cut.

“It is ironic that Barack Obama’s plan to help our children reach for the stars is financed in part by slashing a program that helps us learn about those very same stars,” said Danny Diaz, RNC spokesman.