Obama Pushes $5 Billion in Grants to Revamp Teachers’ Pay

The Obama administration began a push to tie teacher pay to performance instead of seniority, dangling a proposed $5 billion in incentives for U.S. states and districts that embrace the president’s approach.

The grant program, part of Obama’s $69.8 billion education-budget proposal for fiscal 2013, seeks to revamp tenure practices at elementary and secondary schools to make it easier to weed out underperformers and raise pay to attract top college graduates to the teaching profession. Education Secretary Arne Duncan is meeting with teachers today in Washington.

The grants will require President Barack Obama to win support from unions, which have fought to keep tenure and seniority-based pay plans. Tenure, which gives job security to teachers after several years, needs “reform” to “raise the bar,” Duncan said in prepared remarks to the educators.

“Instead of a lifetime guarantee, tenure needs to be a recognized honor that signifies professional accomplishment and success,” Duncan said. “And we need a system of due process to deal fairly with those who are not up to the challenge.”

The new program builds on the approach of Race to the Top, which offered $5 billion in competitive grants to states that signed onto Obama’s educational policies, which included tying teacher evaluations to student performance. Republicans, including House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline of Minnesota, have said Obama’s agenda dictates educational practices that should be handled at a local level.

‘Larger Goal’

The administration’s program is called Recognizing Educational Success Professional Excellence and Collaborative Teaching, or Respect.

“Our larger goal is to make teaching not only America’s most important profession -- but America’s most respected profession,” Duncan said.

Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, said in a statement that Duncan’s plan is “a critical first step” toward ensuring that teachers have preparation and support in schools and that students have access to “qualified and licensed teachers.” The union represents more than 3 million elementary and secondary school teachers, college faculty members and others in the profession.

Teacher salaries are too low to attract top college graduates to the field and let instructors “raise a family and maintain a middle-class lifestyle,” Duncan said. At the same time, “teacher earnings should be tied more closely to performance -- rather than simply to longevity or credentials,” he said.

Echoing Gates

In making that argument, Duncan is echoing the remarks of Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates, who in November 2010 called on top U.S. public school officials to overhaul teacher pay. In a speech, Gates said compensation plans that reward teachers based on seniority and the awarding of master’s degrees cost taxpayers $59 billion a year and don’t improve student achievement.

The grant program also seeks to increase the selectivity of teachers’ colleges, many of which Duncan described as “mediocre at best.”

The education budget proposal needs congressional approval and would take effect in the year beginning in October.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal. LEARN MORE