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Democrats Debate

Merit pay for teachers, which has been a subject of debate among lawmakers working towards reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act, was a point of discussion in the Democratic presidential debate in Iowa on Sunday. It’s particularly interesting to see how the three candidates who sit on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, which could take up an NCLB reauthorization bill as early as next month, came down on that issue, and on the education law generally.

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said he would support merit pay as long as teachers “have some buy-in” in determining how their performance is measured. “They can't be judged simply on standardized tests that don't take into account whether children are prepared before they get to school or not,” he said.

Sen. Obama added that the NCLB law needs considerable overhaul, but didn’t have the chance to offer specific proposals on how to accomplish that, other than saying he would make sure that teachers have a voice in shaping the reauthorized version of the law, and that Congress should provide more funding for it.

“I've had a lot of discussions with teachers all throughout Iowa. And they feel betrayed and frustrated by No Child Left Behind,” Sen. Obama said.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said she would support incentive pay for “school-wide performance” but stopped short of proposing extra pay for teachers deemed particularly effective within a school. She said merit pay could be used to help “change the culture within schools and to provide the resources, the training and the support that teachers need to do the job they do want to do.”

Sen. Clinton, who has been critical of the law in the past, expressed similar sentiments during the debate. “You have to reform No Child Left Behind. We're going to try to do that and begin to make it much more in line with the reality of teaching,” she said.

Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, D-Conn., the chairman of the subcommittee overseeing K-12 educa-tion, said he’d support extra pay for teachers who are willing to work in under-resourced schools. But he added, “I'm not in favor necessarily of giving more preference for a teacher that's performing some-what better. Measuring that I think is the wrong direction.”

Sen. Dodd also briefly summarized his plans for reauthorization, which includes some proposals that have already garnered broad support in Congress, such as growth models.

“I'm a believer that we need to have fundamental reform of No Child Left Behind, and start measuring growth, not abandoning schools that aren't doing well, and providing far less rigid criteria when it comes to highly qualified teachers,” he said.

None of the senators on the education committee echoed the call during Sunday's debate by Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico to scrap the law completely.

"I also have a one-point plan, like I do on Iraq, on No Child Left Behind: Scrap it. It's a mess; it's a disaster," Gov. Richardson said.

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