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President Barack Obama speaks about education reform at a roundtable discussion by the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington, D.C.

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Kai Ryssdal: As if he's not busy enough, President Obama made a speech of his own today. An ambitious plan for pre-K-through-college education. He brought a long reform list with him that includes boosting Head Start, beefing up the standards for K through 12, maybe even lengthening the school day and year, too. The president also said he'll push for two big ideas that aren't popular with a lot of Democrats and, in particular, with teachers' unions. Merit pay and charter schools. Marketplace's Mitchell Hartman explains.


MITCHELL HARTMAN: The president was clear and concise on boosting pay for the best teachers.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom.

Teachers' unions are wed to seniority-based pay. But Courtney Vanderstek of the Oregon Education Association says there are many ways to attach dollars to "performance".

COURTNEY VANDERSTEK: If you're going to work more, do more than is required "under the contract," there ought to be compensation for that work, such as for mentoring new teachers or writing new curriculum. That's hard to argue with.

What union advocates do argue with is paying more for student achievement, based on standardized tests, for instance. Vanderstek thinks Education Secretary Arne Duncan will be able to find a compromise between teachers and employers. But it's probably going to end up costing the taxpayer.

VANDERSTEK: I do think there's going to be federal money for innovation that helps teachers be more successful in the classroom.

Teachers' unions don't much like charter schools, either. But Nelson Smith of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools says removing restrictions on them won't cost much.

NELSON SMITH: And in terms of the state and local costs, it's not a matter of adding new costs, it's a matter of having the dollars follow the children, and letting parents decide where to send their kids.

Critics argue when those dollars leave public districts, there's even less money available to fix struggling schools and reward good teachers.

I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

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