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Obama uses money to urge school changes

Using stimulus dollars as bait, President Barack Obama is coaxing states to rewrite education laws and cut deals with unions as they compete for $5 billion in school reform grants.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Using stimulus dollars as bait, President Barack Obama is coaxing states to rewrite education laws and cut deals with unions as they compete for $5 billion in school reform grants, the most money a president has ever had for overhauling schools. And it may end up going to only a few states.

In Wisconsin, where Obama will visit Wednesday, lawmakers are poised to change a law to boost their state's chances. Nine other states have taken similar steps.

And states can't even apply for the money yet.

"There is an appetite out there for change," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said in an interview with The Associated Press.

"There's been really dramatic movement in a number of states," said Duncan, who will travel to Madison, Wis., with the president. "This was the goal, but we didn't know if anyone was going to respond."

Respond they have.

Pay tied to performance
Wisconsin lawmakers planned to vote Thursday to lift a ban on using student test scores to judge teachers. That helps clear the way for an Obama priority, teacher pay tied to student performance.

California lifted a similar ban last month. And before that, charter school restrictions or budget cuts were eased in eight states — Louisiana, Illinois, Tennessee, Delaware, Indiana, Ohio, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Duncan had repeatedly warned that such restrictions would hurt a state's chances at the money. The administration can't really tell states and schools what to do, since education has been largely a state and local responsibility throughout the history of the U.S.

But Obama has considerable leverage in his nearly $5 billion competitive grant fund, dubbed the "Race to the Top," that was set aside in the economic stimulus law.

"If you put a very large, $5 billion program in front of the entire country, everyone eyes that as an opportunity," said Wisconsin state Sen. John Lehman, a Democrat who chairs the state's Senate Education Committee and a former high school teacher.

No president has ever had that much money for schools at his discretion. Only Duncan — not Congress — has control over who gets it. And only some states, perhaps 10 to 20, will actually get the money.

Obama will use the trip to Wisconsin to call attention to the actions states are taking, one year after his election, to put his vision of reform in place, Melody Barnes, Obama's domestic policy director, told reporters Wednesday on a conference call.

Teachers' union disagree
Obama sees the test score data and charter schools, which are publicly funded but independent of local school boards, as solutions to the problems that plague public education.

The national teachers' unions disagree. They say student achievement is much more than a score on a standardized test and that it's a mistake to rely so heavily on charter schools.

"Despite growing evidence to the contrary, it appears the administration has decided that charter schools are the only answer to what ails America's public schools," the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union, said in comments submitted to the Education Department.

The NEA added: "We should not continue the unhealthy focus on standardized tests as the primary evidence of student success."

At the state level, unions have made deals with lawmakers on test scores. In Wisconsin, the state teachers' union agreed that test scores could be used to evaluate teachers — as long as they couldn't be used to fire or discipline teachers.

Teachers' unions are an influential segment of Obama's Democratic base. Obama is encouraging states to get their support; the Education Department says a state can win extra points in the "Race to the Top" if unions support their efforts.

The Wisconsin agreement is only half a loaf, said Amy Wilkins, a lobbyist for Education Trust, a children's advocacy group.

"There are lots of ways to use the data aside from firing and discipline," Wilkins said. "That said, unless you figure out a fair but fast way to remove truly incompetent teachers from classrooms, they're going to continue to be cycled into the highest poverty schools."

Charter schools and test scores fit into four broad goals that Obama wants states to pursue — tougher academic standards, better ways to recruit and keep effective teachers, a method of tracking student performance and a plan of action to turn around failing schools.

A state will have to meet a series of conditions to earn points and boost its chances. Applications will be available this month, and the first round of grants will be awarded early next year.