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Candidates’ Proposals On Teaching Await Details

By Bess Keller — February 04, 2004 4 min read

Teachers have snagged the attention of the Democratic presidential candidates, whose campaign pronouncements have linked high-quality teaching with progress for the nation’s neediest schools.

None of the major contenders for the nomination has a detailed plan on the subject. But four candidates are pushing ideas that would better compensate teachers, especially new teachers, who work in schools with disproportionate numbers of poor and minority children.

More specifically, the candidates propose either paying more to teachers who will go where many others will not— such as inner cities and rural areas—or subsidizing the college costs of such teachers.

On this front, they would seem to be on firm ground with voters. A nonpartisan national poll sponsored by the National Education Association found last month that those surveyed strongly favored a larger federal role in education, including, by 65 percent to 11 percent, providing incentives for teachers to work in high-poverty schools.

Further, favorably highlighting the profession could pay campaign dividends down the road. With 2.7 million members, the NEA, for instance, as a rule fields thousands of grassroots supporters for the victor of the Democratic race. Of course, Democratic candidates also run the risk of seeming beholden to the teachers’ unions.

Neither the NEA nor the 1.3 million-member American Federation of Teachers has yet endorsed a presidential candidate, though history suggests that they are certain to back the eventual Democratic nominee. Both unions declined to comment on the candidates’ proposals on teaching.

Some observers, though, are happy to endorse the candidates’ willingness to think about how the federal government might take the lead in evening out teacher quality. “There’s a huge role for the federal government to play,” said Barnett Berry, who heads the Southeast Center for Teacher Quality in Chapel Hill, N.C. He called the incentives outlined in the campaign platforms “all great ideas” while noting that they add up to an incomplete solution.

Variety of Incentives

The candidates vary on the exact incentives they would back. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said in a November speech that he supports a $10,000 income-tax deduction for those who teach in the neediest schools.

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina wants to provide more pay outright, along with a $5,000 home-mortgage credit for teachers “who buy homes in the poor communities where they teach,” according to his Web site.

Former Gov. Howard Dean of Vermont proposes on his Web site rewarding some veteran teachers willing to teach in high-poverty schools with a special federal teaching license that would be accepted in every state.

In a January speech, retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark indicated that he was also ready to boost compensation for teachers. He promised to “target resources to districts that need help because having qualified teachers at the head of every classroom is the most important step toward improving schools.”

Addressing the “teacher gap” problem from another vantage point, two candidates propose helping with college costs in exchange for teaching in the neediest schools. Mr. Dean vows to underwrite with “national service scholarships” the college educations of prospective teachers willing to commit to teaching in subject areas or schools where teachers are hard to come by, according to written statements from his campaign.

Mr. Edwards is on this bandwagon, too. “We should say to the smartest young people in America: If you make a five-year commitment to teach in a place or a subject where top-flight teachers are in short supply, then we will pay for your college education,” he declared in a November speech. He also advocates doubling, to $6 billion, the current annual federal spending on teacher quality.

Tenure Changes?

Both Sen. Edwards and Sen. Kerry have proposed tying some of that spending to higher expectations for teachers, schools, and districts. Sen. Edwards, for example, wants to make it easier to dismiss teachers.

Mr. Kerry, meanwhile, has steered clear of the issue of teacher tenure during his presidential campaign. He riled the unions in 1998 with two speeches that not only attacked teacher tenure, but set forth the premise that many school districts were “imploding.” But that kind of criticism seems out of step with the views Mr. Kerry has voiced during the present campaign.

Teacher experts said the attention to teacher quality from the Democratic hopefuls was welcome, but they cautioned that the teacher gap could not be closed with any one shot.

“I’m thrilled that the presidential candidates want to put this on the table,” said Mr. Berry of the Southeast Center for Teacher Quality. But he added that more policymakers have to think about preparing teachers to succeed with children in challenging environments. “That’s what I haven’t seen enough of.”

Elizabeth L. Useem, the research director for the Philadelphia Education Fund, who has been studying teacher turnover, said that additional compensation alone would not get teachers to try or stick with the hardest assignments.

“It seems to me what you are going to need to go for is really improved working conditions,” she said.

The idea of paying the college costs of teachers has been little assessed at the state or federal level, said Rita Kirshstein, a researcher for the Washington-based American Institutes forResearch.

Especially troubling, she added, are programs that sign up college students before they have taken jobs in target schools or fields. She asked, “Are we getting the best and the brightest in the classroom, asking people to commit at an early stage?”

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