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Source: Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2004

Kerry Proposal Would Boost Teachers, but With a Price

The $20-billion plan would increase hiring and pay but make it easier to fire faculty

By Ronald Brownstein and Maria L. La Ganga, Times Staff Writers

COLTON, Calif. — Unveiling his most sweeping education initiative yet, Sen. John F. Kerry said Thursday he would provide states more than $20 billion over the next decade to hire more teachers and raise their pay in return for new efforts to weed out poorly performing instructors.

The plan would use the carrot of increased federal funding to encourage states to impose accountability measures that teacher unions have resisted. While improving teacher salaries, it would loosen the employment protections that block many districts from firing faculty members except in the most serious cases of incompetence or misconduct.

"I believe that we need to offer teachers more pay, more training, more career choices and more options for education," Kerry said in a speech at Colton High School in San Bernardino County. "And we must ask more in return. That's the bargain."

Kerry would require all states receiving the new federal money to toughen the tests used to certify new teachers. Even more dramatically, he would require those states to simplify the process for teacher dismissal.

The proposal continues Kerry's emphasis on centrist themes — such as fiscal discipline and a strong military — since effectively clinching the Democratic presidential nomination in early March.

But it risks conflict with teacher unions, a key party constituency whose leaders offered general praise for the plan but did not endorse its controversial details. Indeed, the union leaders already have complained about the proposal to key Democrats on Capitol Hill, Democratic aides say.

Other elements of Kerry's proposal — which include a new fund to aid struggling schools — raise its price tag to $30 billion over 10 years.

The plan is the latest of several proposals Kerry would pay for by rescinding the parts of President Bush's tax cuts benefiting families earning $200,000 or more annually. Republicans reiterated their criticism that canceling these cuts would not raise enough money to cover Kerry's various proposals.

The speech took Kerry full circle on one of the most controversial issues in education policy. In a celebrated 1998 speech, he urged tougher standards for educators and declared, "We must end teacher tenure as we know it."

But Kerry sublimated that message in his presidential primary campaign, instead emphasizing liberal arguments that Bush has underfunded education programs and imposed unrealistic standards on schools, students and teachers through the No Child Left Behind law.

Kerry's new proposal, following his release Tuesday of a plan to reduce school dropout rates, tilts his education agenda back toward the accountability themes Bush has stressed.

The Massachusetts senator's call for linking higher pay to tougher teacher standards drew praise even from leading conservative analysts.

"I'm impressed that he was willing to come out and state that publicly," said Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank. "I know it can be difficult with the Democratic constituencies, so he deserves credit for taking that step."

But Bush aides questioned whether Kerry would fight for his plan if teacher unions resist.

Steve Schmidt, a Bush campaign spokesman, dismissed Kerry's speech as "empty rhetoric," and "an obvious election-year stunt designed to obscure his decades-long record of doing nothing to make schools accountable to children and parents."

Democratic nominee Al Gore offered an almost identical plan in the 2000 presidential race — drawing boos from an audience of teachers in Michigan when he detailed it. Kerry's speech received applause from a mixed audience of teachers, parents, administrators, students and local politicians at his Colton appearance.

Kerry's plan, which he termed a "new bargain for America's teachers and children," would significantly increase Washington's influence over the way teachers are hired, compensated, evaluated and fired.

He said he would provide money for pay increases of at least $5,000 a year for those teaching in low-income, high-need schools or in subject areas, such as math and science, that face a shortage of qualified instructors. States also would get money to expand programs that pair new teachers with more experienced mentors or coaches, as the Los Angeles Unified School District does.

But these funds would be available only to states or school districts that agree to the new certification tests and simplified dismissal standards for teachers.

In his speech, Kerry said teachers must be protected against "arbitrary dismissal … against politics and personality and whimsical decision-making."

But he added to loud applause: "At the same time, no one can have a lock on the job forever…. It's not fair to the teacher. It's not fair to other teachers. It's not fair to the parents. And of course, it's not fair to the children."

While pushing states to remove faltering teachers, Kerry's plan encourages them to reward effective educators. It would establish a program to fund teacher raises of at least $5,000 annually in communities that agree to tie instructor pay to performance in the classroom.

Kerry would let districts use a variety of measures in judging teachers, such as reviews from colleagues, but he would require that school officials base part of their assessments on how a teacher's students perform academically.

Some experts think Kerry's plan would go a long way toward fulfilling his 1998 call for exposing teachers to more of the same risks and incentives as other professionals.

"The single most important determinant of whether kids learn or not are high-quality teachers," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a centrist group that advocates for low-income children. "So Kerry's decision to focus there is a really important next step."

The American Federation of Teachers greeted the plan with a mixture of support and skepticism.

Tina Flournoy, assistant to the union president, said the group welcomed the focus on teachers and did not object to "streamlining the process by which the small number of teachers who should not be in the classroom" are removed.

But she said the union questioned "whether there is a federal role for moving states in that direction." She also warned that states should not emphasize student performance too heavily in judging teachers.

Reg Weaver, president of the National Education Assn., praised the plan in broad terms, but he may have signaled concerns when he said, "We look forward to discussing ways to help strengthen Sen. Kerry's proposals."

Kerry's plan also would pay off college loans for young people who agree to teach in high-need schools for at least four years; increase funding for programs that use the Internet and other means to encourage teacher-parent cooperation; fund reforms at schools that fail to improve student performance on the annual tests required by the No Child Left Behind law and bolster efforts to improve training of principals.

Kerry has not issued a detailed budget that shows how he would fit all of his spending and tax proposals into his promise to halve the federal budget deficit over four years.


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Last modified: May 12, 2004

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