WASHINGTON — In 2003, former Gov. Roy Barnes won a Profile in Courage award for his campaign to replace a divisive Georgia state flag, which was born in defiance to de-segregation, with a new banner. But fighting for a new flag wasn’t the most courageous thing Barnes did during his single term as governor. His bravest act was standing up to school teachers.
For his crusade to end “tenure” for public school teachers, Barnes was ridden out of town on a rail. If teachers were traditionally a Democratic voting bloc, they deserted Barnes en masse during his re-election campaign and helped to sweep a little-known Sonny Perdue into office.
But Barnes isn’t giving up his plans to reform education in Georgia. “I’m still a big believer in performance bonuses and teacher accountability,” he said in a telephone interview.
Barnes has a bit of an edge in pushing that idea in his current campaign for governor: it’s gained currency. Historically, teachers’ unions have railed against merit pay as unjust, unfair, a sop to teachers with high-income, high-performing students. But President Obama’s new Race to the Top program rewards performance-based pay — and has garnered support from several teachers’ groups.
Obama’s Race to the Top fund, which will award money to school districts that adopt sweeping reforms, hasn’t received the white-hot cable news scrutiny of health care legislation and hasn’t been the subject of contentious “town hall” meetings. But it has the potential to alter the landscape of local education at least as much as his health insurance proposals could change medical care. The reform program will reward states that boost charter schools; that link teacher pay to performance; and that adopt “internationally recognized” standards for student achievement.
Many education reformers believe that tying teacher pay to student performance will encourage the best teachers, weed out the worst and reinvigorate those somewhere in the middle. There is no agreement about how best to evaluate teaching skills, but even the American Federation of Teachers supports the idea of crafting an evaluation system that is rational and fair.
And what about judging student performance? President Bush’s No Child Left Behind allowed states to set their own standards for student achievement in what quickly became a race to the bottom. Universally accepted standards will help to ensure that all children are held to the same high bar.
Already, the $4.3 billion Race to the Top fund has prompted changes. With local school systems strapped for cash, several states have changed their laws to accommodate charter schools or to make provisions linking teacher pay to student performance.
And, unlike health care, support for Race to the Top extends across the aisle. Conservatives like it because it opposes union orthodoxy. Liberals like it because it promises billions more in federal aid to local schools.
“This crosses the ideological spectrum,” Melody Barnes, Obama’s top domestic policy adviser, told me. “We’ve had 41 states and the District of Columbia applying (for the grants), split half and half between Democratic and Republican governors. It has exceeded our expectations,” she said. Indeed, Obama has requested another $1.35 billion from Congress to extend the program.
While Georgia is among the 41 states trying to get some of the money, a few ultra-conservatives have found reason to complain. Rick Perry, GOP governor of Texas, says his state won’t participate because the push for universal standards of student performance usurps “state’s rights.”
Barnes, who backs Race to the Top, says “common standards are coming. There is no difference in algebra in Georgia or North Dakota or New York. . Our competitiveness as a nation depends on whether we have well-educated workers.”
Obama is said to believe that no crisis should go to waste. He isn’t wasting the funding crisis in state capitals around the country. He’s using it to push bold plans for education reform.