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Union Leaders on NCLB and the Stim

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Schools and the Stimulus
Right after the stimulus bill, which contained a whopping $115 billion in new education money, passed the House, I asked Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, how the super-sized spending plan would impact reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act. You can check out his answer, and some pretty interesting reader comments, here.

Well, last week, I asked the same question of two other folks who are going to play a very important role in the reauthorization debate: Randi Weingarten, the new president of the American Federation of Teachers and Dennis Van Roekel, the new president of the National Education Association.

Neither of them were in their positions back in August 2007 when Miller introduced his ill-fated discussion draft.

Both started off by saying they were grateful to Congress and the administration for stemming what could have been a massive tidal wave of teacher layoffs.

Weingarten, who recently penned a Washington Post editorial calling for national standards, said she sees the stimulus funding, first and foremost, as a "life-line" to schools that have been battered by the economic storm.

"If you are in the trenches like our members are in the trenches, you see what these kinds of cuts could have meant," she said.

It doesn't sound like she would necessarily equate the money in the stimulus with the No Child Left Behind Act.

"Funding issues between [the stimulus] and NCLB [is] really an apples and oranges comparison," she said "This is replacing money that was lost, it's not a net increase" for most school districts. (Check out Michele's take on winners-and-losers in the funding formula here).

Van Roekel had a similar message.

"The 60 billion [in the state stabilization fund] just filled a hole," he said. "It's not new money." He said the increases for Title I and special education "definitely have an impact" but that "we also have to do things inside that system to change" the kinds of supports kids get, including expanding pre-kindergarten programs, which President Barack Obama called for in his budget. And he said, Congress should still rework the accountability system at the center of the law, putting less emphasis on high stakes tests.

"We need to spend the money on research to find a good solid system that measures student learning," he said.

Still, Weingarten said, the money could have a major impact on future funding debates.

"If the money is well spent and if we're able to maintain and improve educational outcomes for kids" which she defines as getting students prepared for the college and the workforce, "We will make a powerful case that money matters. ... If the money is wisely spent then there's a real shot at making the case" for some of the funding to become part of a new baseline.

Weingarten did agree that the NCLB landscape has shifted, but it sounded to me like, in her view, that had as much to do with the change in administration as it does with the stimulus.

"The debate about reauthorizing the ESEA will be different now than it was under the Bush administration," Weingarten said. "Rep. Miller was in an untenable position. He was trying to come up with a compromise that would" pass muster with the Bush administration, rather than trying to find "the best education policy solutions."

When I spoke to Miller, he told me he thought that the nation was more open to incentive pay, one of the issues that drew the loudest criticism back when the discussion draft was released.

Van Roekel reiterated NEA's general position on alternative pay, which is basically that it's okay for teachers to get more money than their colleagues for talking on certain extra tasks, like earning National Board Certification.

Weingarten reminded me that she had been open to "differential pay" for teachers as head of New York's United Federation of Teachers and helped craft a plan that drew praise from Miller.

She didn't say that she was ready to embrace merit pay tied to test scores (if she had, that would have been game-changing breaking news and you wouldn't be reading about it in the very bottom of a blog item).

Instead she said, "I always am very leery of anyone who thinks that any of these things is a silver bullet," She said that she's a supporter of reducing class size but doesn't think that alone will completely change the direction for troubled school systems. "I would put performance pay in that same category it’s not a panacea just like class size is not a panacea."

1 Comment

Weingarten, as per usual, throws up a strawman on the merit pay debate.

None of the serious Republican education reformers EVER talk about merit pay as a silver bullet. It is one part of a whole flotilla of reforms that need to happen.

Richard Burr, Lamar Alexander, Buck McKeon, Mike Castle, not a one of them say "merit pay is it, then we're done."

But the federal role (at least so far) is not to be the answer to all ills or try to pretend to solve every problem. A merit pay program, like the Teacher Incentive Fund, allows local school districts or states to develop merit or incentive pay programs that work in their local school district.

What works in Denver won't in Tallahassee or Memphis or Charlotte or New York City.

So if Weingarten would get off her lazy canards, maybe we'd actually see a thoughtful discussion take place.

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