Rallying behind school reform

Posted: Monday, August 03, 2009

Many issues have created a "politics as usual" atmosphere on Capitol Hill recently, but when it comes to educating our children, it appears President Obama and the Republican Party share some views. This commonality of interest provides the president and the GOP a rare opportunity to cooperate on a major issue.

In a March address on education, the president proposed several reforms, three of which the Republican Party has been championing for years.

First, he called for merit pay for teachers:

"Good teachers will be rewarded with more money for improved student achievement, and asked to accept more responsibilities for lifting up their schools."

Next, he called for removing ineffective teachers:

"Let me be clear: If a teacher is given a chance ... but still does not improve, there is no excuse for that person to continue teaching. I reject a system that rewards failure and protects a person from its consequences."

Finally, he called for the expansion of public charter schools:

"Provided ... greater accountability, I call on states to reform their charter rules, and lift caps on the number of allowable charter schools, wherever such caps are in place."

It is no accident the GOP has consistently supported these ideas - they embody some of the party's core beliefs: Good performance should be rewarded, failure should have consequences and individuals should have freedom of choice. These reforms only make sense. Why would we not want to choose the most suitable school for a child, reward a teacher for producing outstanding results or fire a teacher who is bad at his or her job?

Unlike congressional Democrats, who answer to teachers unions, Obama and the GOP have the same laser focus: These are our children we're talking about, our future, the country's future.

The public understands that these are good ideas, too. Arguably the most controversial is the idea of removing failed teachers from the classroom. It has met with considerable resistance from teachers unions over the years, but when put to the test in a recent NBC-Wall Street Journal survey of 1,005 adults, a staggering 78 percent said they approved of President Obama's proposal to make "it easier for schools to dismiss teachers who are shown to be poor performers." With a number like that, you'd be right to assume there is agreement across the political spectrum: 80 percent of Democrats, 73 percent of independents and 82 percent of Republicans say they approve of this proposal.

It is also no coincidence that part of President Obama's education plan builds on work being done by Republican governors around the country, such as Tim Pawlenty's efforts in Minnesota to implement a system of post-tenure review for teachers or Sonny Perdue's support in Georgia of merit pay for teachers and incentive pay for principals. In fact, over the past five years, 17 Republican governors have proposed education reforms related to merit or incentive pay, dismissing failed teachers and expanding charter schools, while only five Democratic governors have addressed these issues.

As a party, Republicans out in the states are far ahead on these reforms, so why not get on board in Washington, as well? At a time when critics are trying to define the GOP as the party of no, here is a clear opportunity to say yes. And let's not forget there's a reason Obama has talked a lot about these proposals but done nothing significant about them yet: They are going to split the Democratic base and threaten the unwavering support the Democrats have received from teachers unions over the years.

But that's all the more reason for Republicans to push for cooperation on these reforms - to find out if Obama plans to follow through on what he's saying. It's a fine case of Reaganesque "trust, but verify." And Republicans should be mindful that not all of Obama's education reforms are to their liking; for instance, Obama recently signed a bill that places the future of Washington, D.C.'s popular voucher program in doubt, to the dismay of thousands of African American families.

So while Washington may be gearing up for some big legislative battles, education need not be one that leads to failure. By finding common ground with President Obama, the Republican Party can demonstrate its bipartisan spirit while creating a fissure among the Democrats. But, most important, the party can achieve what it has been working toward for many years: making sure our children learn from the best teachers and get the best education we can provide.

• Richard N. Bond is a government relations consultant in Washington. Bill McInturff is co-founder and partner and Alex Bratty is vice president, of Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm.

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