Gore Walking Fine Line On Teacher Accountability
The teacher-accountability plan that Vice President Al Gore proposed this month presents a mixed bag for teachers. On one hand, they would receive more pay and professional recognition; on the other, they would be subject to tougher hiring and firing requirements that could nudge some out of the field.
The proposal reflects the potentially complicated relationship between the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and the national teachers' unions, which were early backers of his campaign and are among the biggest contributors of money and manpower to his party.
Both the National Education Assocation and the American Federation of Teachers endorsed the vice president for the 2000 nomination, and it's a sure bet they will also be working for him in the general election against his Republican rival, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas.
But in recent weeks, Mr. Gore has seemed to be responding to criticism from conservatives that a union nod means clinging to the educational status quo.
While his recent campaign proposal on teachers, announced May 5, would pour billions of dollars into incentives such as signing bonuses and merit pay, it would also strike a blow to the tenure system. Mr. Gore called for allowing principals to hire teachers and other staff members based on factors other than seniority, and advocated a faster process for removing incompetent teachers from the classroom—tying federal funds to two measures that many union members might oppose.
"At its best, teaching is a lifetime vocation. But no teaching license or contract should be a lifetime guarantee," Mr. Gore said in his speech unveiling his plan to the Michigan Education Association, an affiliate of the NEA.
"He's balancing," said John F. Jennings, the president of the Center on Education Policy, a Washington research group, and a former longtime Democratic aide on Capitol Hill. "He's clearly talking about what teachers are concerned about, and, of course, he clearly has a problem with being called too close to the unions."
Indeed, Mr. Gore's press secretary, Doug Hattaway, readily acknowledged this month that "we won't agree with the unions on every single issue."
But the campaign still considers teachers' union members a significant voter pool, he added, pointing out that teachers are usually more engaged in politics and civic activities than the average citizen.
"We certainly can't take teachers' votes for granted," Mr. Hattaway said. The unions' endorsements are "extremely important because they communicate regularly with their members. At the same time, we have to earn the vote of each and every teacher."
Praise From Unions
Both national unions offered generally positive reactions to Mr. Gore's May 5 proposal, saying that they have nothing against accountability and welcome plans to remove incompetent teachers.
"Our sense is, any proposal that will improve the quality of teaching will be good for teachers and students," said Gregory King, a spokesman for the 1 million-member AFT. "While the specifics may need to be looked at and honed, the overall message is one that teachers will respect."
He added that the union would request more details, particularly about the tenure issue.
"It wasn't like what we heard from Mr. Gore was alarming," said Margaret Trimer-Hartley, the communications consultant for the Michigan Education Association. "We're not afraid of accountability."
"A lot of things in here are issues that need to be talked about and discussed," Bob Chase, the president of the 2.4-million member NEA, added in an interview last week.
Conservatives, meanwhile, gave Mr. Gore little credit for differing with the unions in some areas.
"I don't think the fact that teacher unions may differ with Al Gore on some components of his teacher plan is significant," Rep. Bill Goodling, the Pennsylvania Republican who chairs the House Education and the Workforce Committee, said in a written statement to Education Week. "Like other labor unions, the NEA and AFT have endorsed Gore and are not going to change their minds because of these types of policy differences."
Nina Shokraii Rees, an education policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation who volunteers as an adviser to Gov. Bush's campaign, added that while some of Mr. Gore's ideas may seem controversial, they lack important details about how teachers would be removed and the tenure system might be abolished.
"It certainly does appear that [Mr. Gore] is trying to push the envelope as much as he can," she said. "At the same time, [the unions] really don't have anywhere else to go."
Mr. Bush, she added, largely believes teacher accountability should be a local issue.
While visiting an elementary school in Georgia last week, the presumptive GOP nominee called for providing an additional $400 million for teacher-training programs to states that demand high standards for teachers.
Several observers pointed out that there's still plenty of time for the vice president to revise his proposals before November. And if he is elected, the unions could have a heavy hand in shaping any ensuing legislation.
In addition to his proposals on tenure and due process, Mr. Gore's plan includes giving new federal aid to districts that have worked with local businesses, parents, community groups, and school officials to craft plans to raise teacher quality. The money would be used to give teachers $5,000 raises; "master teachers" and those who had completed the requirements for certification by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards would receive $10,000 raises.
And Mr. Gore said he wanted to work with teachers and administrators to figure out a plan to reward individual teachers for exemplary performance.
Before setting foot in the classroom, however, new teachers should have to pass "rigorous and fair" tests on the subjects they will teach, Mr. Gore said, and elementary school teachers should be tested on their ability to teach reading. High school and middle school teachers, he said, should be required to have a college major or minor in their subjects, or pass a test to prove their competency. To receive the federal funds under Mr. Gore's plan, states would have to prove that all their teachers were fully certified or working toward certification.
Vol. 19, Issue 36, Pages 27,31