Enter John Kerry. He's got two basic pitches on education. In the first, he blasts Bush for short-changing NCLB. This sounds nice, but politically, it's less than inspiring. Here's yet another Bush plan that Kerry voted for but now claims he was fooled on. Gullibility is not presidential.
Kerry's second pitch is the real winner. His education plan makes use of federal incentives to succeed precisely where NCLB failed. Like a good liberal, Kerry dishes the carrot. But as Jonathan Schorr's excellent article from the August Washington Monthly documents, Kerry's proposal is also "quietly radical."
The plan focuses almost single-mindedly (and wisely) on recruiting good teachers with a whole new pot of federal money. The catch is, most of the cash can only be used for standardized, merit-based salary increases, and only in concert with a streamlined process for firing bad teachers.
Linking teacher pay to performance has angered the teachers' unions. But that's the genius of Kerry's plan (politically and policy-wise). Unlike NCLB, where unions, districts, and state lawmakers can find common ground opposing heavy-handed federal mandates and threats, Kerry's plan simply dangles a pot of money for any school district that's willing to devise a new system. If the teachers unions don't want performance measures, they're left in the tough position of having to "explain to their members why they're walking away from potentially federally funded salary increases."
This seems like a really good idea. I think it has intuitive appeal, it shows that Kerry is willing to not kowtow to powerful special interest groups (while still benefiting a core constituency, I think this proposals is ultimately good for teachers), and it shifts debate onto democratic home territory.
I sent an email off to a former high school teacher of mine asking for her opinion on the proposal (since I'm sure there are a million nuances that I simply don't understand). When she writes back, I'll be sure to give her take on the subject.