Students raise their hands in class
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Bill Radke: We're two weeks away from Election Day now, and it's an election law that all presidential candidates must tell you they believe the children are our future. But with a weak economy and huge deficits, what do education advocates expect from the next president? Reporter Steve Henn has the last installment of our election series Interested Parties.

Steve Henn: Washington, D.C. and its deeply troubled public school system have become a living laboratory for half a dozen controversial ideas about education reform. Why here?

Jason Kamaras: The short answer is we're failing.

Jason Kamaras works for D.C. publics schools. A couple years ago, he was named national teacher of the year. Right now, he's working for the school system's chancellor on a pay-for-performance teacher contract the likes of which has never been seen.

Kamaras: We are putting an extra $30 [thousand], $40 [thousand], $50,000 in base and bonuses on the table and that I think does change the picture.

Under the proposed plan, a 20-something teacher could earn six figures in an inner-city public school. But if they fail, they're gone. And Kamaras is fine that.

Kamaras: Low performing teachers should not be making more money.

Many ideas being tried here, like charter schools or paying teachers and even students for performance, have their roots in an entrepreneurial, almost market-driven approach to education. Kamaras, and other reformers like Greg Cork, say there's a place for federal money to encourage experimentation.

Greg Cork: Why would you oppose that?

Cork's daughter goes to one of the best public schools in the city.

Cork: The stark contrast between what was available to her and what was available to folks in Anacostia, southeast, northeast, elsewhere in the city troubled me. And I just felt like I wanted to do something about it.

So Cork gave up his career as a corporate lawyer and now runs the only federally-funded charter school voucher program in the country. His group uses 12 million federal dollars a year to offer roughly 1,700 low-income D.C. kids scholarships to private schools. He says it's transforming lives.

Cork: That fundamental issue of fairness just keeps -- I keep coming back to the fundamental issue of fairness.

While Cork and Kamaras are taking totally different approaches to education reform, they agree on two things: The only thing that really matters is giving every kid a quality education, and federal cash has a role to play.

In Washington, I'm Steve Henn for Marketplace.

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