Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama laid out a plan Tuesday to spend $18 billion on early childhood education, dropout prevention and teacher incentives. His plan also touches on a hot-button pay issue on which he differs with education unions.
Like the other Democratic candidates, Obama wants to change the 2002 No Child Left Behind education law, which ties federal funding to student results on standardized tests.
He would end standardized tests in favor of more complicated assessments, fund early childhood programs, give teachers bonuses for working in high-needs schools, and fund schools that experiment with longer school days or school years.
"We've got to have a fuller and ultimately … more accurate way of assessing what's going on in the classroom. The main goal of testing should not be to reward or punish," Obama said in an interview Tuesday.
Among the Democratic hopefuls, only New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson would abolish the No Child law. "I would not scrap the idea of having standards that we want schools to achieve," Obama said.
In a speech in New Hampshire laying out the plan, Obama criticized Democratic rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards for not voting in 2003 to make the law unenforceable without full federal funding. "I believe that was a serious mistake."
The Edwards and Clinton camps in turn criticized Obama for voting, as an Illinois state senator, to implement the education law. Campaign spokesman Bill Burton said Obama voted yes to get "what little federal money was available."
On teacher pay, Obama said he supports programs such as one in Denver, where a voluntary merit pay program is based in part on hitting student achievement goals. "Those are the kinds of experiments … that are worth pursuing," Obama said. "What we should not do is to have teachers either rewarded or punished based solely on the performance on a standardized test."
Obama said the same thing to the National Education Association, the largest teachers' union, in July. The union opposes merit pay for student test results, but Obama's support of the Denver program didn't alarm NEA President Reg Weaver.
"He's not talking about tying (pay) to test scores, and he does not call for it to be a federally mandated program, and I don't think any of the other candidates are doing that either," Weaver said Tuesday. The NEA will endorse a candidate before the Iowa caucuses Jan. 3, he said. Clinton has won the support of the American Federation of Teachers.
Clinton said Monday in Iowa that merit pay for teachers "could be demeaning and discouraging." She favors giving more money to high-performing schools, which can then reward teachers. Edwards also has said he opposes merit pay based on test scores.
To pay for his education program, Obama would eliminate tax-deductibility of CEO pay by corporations and delay NASA's program to return to the moon and then journey to Mars.
"We're not going to have the engineers and the scientists to continue space exploration if we don't have kids who are able to read, write and compute," Obama said.
Obama has focused lately on education: Monday in Iowa, he proposed a tax credit to cover the cost of community college and in a TV ad running in New Hampshire he says, "We need parents to turn off the television and instill in our children a sense of excellence."
The question is whether his education plan will help him in New Hampshire, where a CNN/WMUR-TV poll shows Clinton's lead narrowing, or in Iowa, where Obama is in a statistical tie with Clinton and Edwards, according to an ABC/Washington Post poll.
The federal No Child law "is a powerful issue for New Hampshire voters," said Dante Scala of the University of New Hampshire, though "it's dwarfed" by President Bush's handling of the Iraq war and other foreign policy. Obama may not have set himself apart from other Democrats on education, Scala says.
"When push comes to shove, it's hard to say he has a distinctive set of policy positions from the other candidates," Scala said. "Voters find it hard to discern the differences, so they go back to personality and electability."