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President Obama Talks Unions, Race to the Top, and Money

President Barack Obama showcased his education agenda on the "Today Show" this morning, as part of NBC's weeklong education extravaganza.

The interview gave the president an opportunity to talk about his administration's K-12 ideas before a non-wonky, outside-the-Beltway audience. Obama also briefly touched on a new federal initiative to recruit and prepare 10,000 new math, science, engineering, and technology teachers over the next two years. (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is scheduled to be on MSNBC at 2 p.m. today. Maybe we'll hear more about this then?)

Interviewer Matt Lauer hit on some of the high notes of the Obama education agenda, including using student outcomes to help gauge teacher performance, boosting the number of high-quality charter schools, the Race to the Top program, and spending in general.

On education spending:

"We can't spend our way out" of the problems in education, Obama said. Although he said money is a factor, particularly in schools in the nation's poorest neighborhoods, he added that "money without reform will not fix the problem. What we've got to do is combine a very vigorous reform agenda that increases standards, helps make sure we've got the best possible teachers inside the classroom, [and ensures that] we're clearing away some of the bureaucratic underbrush that keeps kids from learning."

On Race to the Top:

"It's probably the most powerful tool we've seen [for] reform in a couple of decades," Obama said. "It turns out that $4 billion, although a small fraction of what we spend on education, is enough to get people's attention." He said the program has encouraged states to raise standards and move on teacher quality initiatives.

And he hinted that it might be tough to get more money for the program from Congress. (The Obama administration is seeking $1.35 billion to extend Race to the Top for an additional year.) "I'm not going to lie to you. It's going to be tough to move forward during tough fiscal times. [Members of Congress may say], if my state loses the competition, I don't feel as good about this."

On teacher quality:

"Teachers are doing a heroic job. ... One of the things I want to do is lift up the teaching profession," Obama said. But he added, "if we can't identify teachers who are subpar, give them the opportunity to get better," but remove them if they aren't improving, "if we don't do that, [then] we are doing a disservice to our kids."

On unions:

Lauer mentioned that the upcoming film, "Waiting for 'Superman'", is tough on unions, but Obama sees a purpose for them. "Often times, teachers unions are designed to make sure that their membership are protected against arbitrary firings" and given fair pay. But he added, "What is also true is that sometimes that means they are resistant to change when things aren't working." But he said that some unions are working with states on issues such as charters, performance pay, and higher standards and accountability for teachers.

He said that the administration wants to work with unions but cautions them, "You can't defend a status quo where a third of kids are dropping out."

On charters:

Just because a school is a charter school, that doesn't mean it's a good school, Obama said. But good charters can be "laboratories of excellence," trying out ideas such as extended school days that can be implemented in all schools, Obama said.

Obama also took questions from the audience, telling one woman that his daughters are getting a better education at Sidwell Friends than they would in many D.C. public schools. And he said he thinks extending the school day or school year is a good investment.

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