clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Obama calls for ideological truce, radical changes in education

In a speech that called for more charter schools, performance pay, and tougher state standards, President Obama this morning laid to rest some doubts that he had not yet made up his mind on several education policy questions currently dividing the Democratic Party.

At the same time, Obama called for a truce in education politics, which has lately been divided by those, including Schools Chancellor Joel Klein, who are pushing for aggressive changes in how schools are run and those who say that schools cannot be fully improved unless lawmakers address poverty and other roots of educational failure. He said his administration will invest heavily in initiatives that are proven to boost student achievement, such as early childhood education and home health care for young families, regardless of who supports them. And in proposing major changes to how teachers are hired, compensated, and fired, Obama never once mentioned teachers unions, regarded by some as obstacles to reform.

Thanks to the stimulus bill passed last month, the federal government is authorized to spend an unprecedented amount of money on education in the coming years. Obama said his administration would offer special funds to states that want to boost their preschool quality, develop more rigorous standards and assessments, and cut their high school dropout rates. During a visit to a Brooklyn charter school last month, Obama’s new education secretary, Arne Duncan, said he would support districts that want to build new data systems to track student achievement and pay teachers based on their students’ test scores, as New York City has done. Without mentioning New York, the president today said he supported the same initiatives.

On how some of the more controversial elements of his education plan would be put in place, Obama gave few specifics in the speech delivered in Washington, D.C., to the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. He said that in up to 150 school districts, “good teachers” will be paid more if their students do better, but he didn’t explain how his administration will identify good teachers or measure student achievement. He also encouraged schools to extend the length of their day and year but did not specify how to pay for the change. And he challenged governors to adopt higher standards in their states, but he left open the question of whether those standards should be the same from state to state.

“The devil is in the details,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the national American Federation of Teachers, in a statement. Traditionally, teachers unions have opposed some of Obama’s proposals, such as differentiating pay based on student achievement and expanding the number of charter schools, whose teachers typically are not unionized. But Weingarten, who also heads New York City’s teachers union, has supported some of the initiatives in the past, permitting a pilot school-based performance bonus program in New York City and calling for national standards in the Washington Post.

Below, statements from the AFT, Chancellor Joel Klein’s Education Equality Project, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the Gates Foundation.

American Federation of Teachers:

Statement by Randi Weingarten, President, American Federation of Teachers, On President Obama’s Remarks Today To the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce

WASHINGTON-We embrace the goals and aspirations outlined today by President Obama when he called for providing all Americans with a comprehensive, competitive education that begins in early childhood and extends through their careers. The president’s vision of education-and the AFT’s-includes world-class standards for all students, new and better tools for teachers, greater effort to recruit and retain good teachers, and competitive teacher salaries with innovative ways to reward teaching excellence.

We also fully support the president’s call for shared responsibility for education-among public officials, school administrators, parents, students and teachers. Teachers want to make a difference in kids’ lives, and they appreciate a president who shares that goal and will spend his political capital to provide the resources to make it happen.

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. The AFT stands ready to work with the president to make America the leader in public education.

Education Equality Project:


We joined together to convince America that a renewed focus on our schools — and a willingness to challenge the status quo on education — is critically important to our country’s future. Today, President Obama told America that ‘economic progress and educational achievement’ are linked. He urged us to rise above partisanship to hold our schools and educators accountable for results; tie education funding to student outcomes; give schools and educators the data they need to make smart decisions; recruit, prepare, and reward outstanding teachers and remove ineffective teachers; and promote educational innovations such as charter schools to provide parents with choices. These ideas are the ones we must implement in order to transform our schools and prepare our students to succeed in the 21st Century global economy. We are taking the President’s words seriously — and are eager to work with him and other school reformers to back the words up with action.

National Association of Public Charter Schools:

President Obama Calls on States to Lift Caps Limiting Charter School Expansion

Washington, DC— In a major education policy speech today, President Barack Obama called on states to lift arbitrary caps on the growth of public charter schools.

In outlining a bold and transformative education strategy for America’s competitiveness, President Obama called “promoting innovation and excellence” a key element of his plan and stated, “One of the places where much of that innovation occurs is in our most effective charter schools.”

The President urged that states remove the artificial caps on charter school growth that now exist in 26 states and the District of Columbia. He said “Right now, there are caps on how many charter schools are allowed in some states, no matter how well they are preparing our students. That isn’t good for our children, our economy, or our country.” Provided that charter school accountability is ensured, President Obama said “I call on states to reform their charter rules, and lift caps on the number of allowable charter schools, wherever such caps are in place.”

National Alliance for Public Charter Schools President and CEO Nelson Smith commended President Obama’s call for a lifting of caps. “With 365,000 students on charter waiting lists, there is no excuse for state laws that stifle the growth of these schools,” said Smith. “President Obama has taken a bold step by challenging states to get on the reform bandwagon. He’s right to couple the promise of growth with a demand for accountability – and nowhere will you find stronger support for high-quality chartering than in the charter movement itself.

At this critical time, students must have educational options that will prepare them for the 21st century economy. President Obama’s call to lift charter caps will open a new chapter, especially in states where caps have limited the future prospects for thousands of students.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation:

Allan Golston, president of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s U.S. Program, issued the following statement today regarding President Obama’s speech this morning to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce: “President Obama today continued to advance the urgent demand to improve America’s public education system from the earliest ages through high school and the completion of a college degree or certificate.

We join our grantees and students across the country in this important endeavor, including the need for fewer, clearer and higher standards, pay that rewards effective teachers, data systems that track student achievement and increasing financial aid that rewards postsecondary completion not simply access.

As the President recognizes, the global economy demands that we not only address high school dropout rates, but do more to ensure that students go on to complete a postsecondary degree or credential with real value in the job market. Low-income and minority students, in particular, suffer from a lack of access to a high-quality education. Only one in five Hispanic young people graduate high school ready for college, and only a quarter of low-income students earn a degree or credential after high school. Today’s speech recognizes education reform as both a civil rights and an economic security priority for everyone in this country.

We are committed to working with the President and his Administration, members of Congress, governors, and other bold leaders across America who are making it a top priority to ensure that all young people graduate prepared for college and career success.”

The COVID-19 outbreak is changing our daily reality

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to providing the information families and educators need, but this kind of work isn't possible without your help.

Sign up for the newsletter Chalkbeat New York

Sign up for our newsletter.