President Barack Obama is promoting tighter standards for teachers and a reduced dropout rate for students as part of an education plan that, at least for now, lacks any new legislative component.
Obama plans to call on Americans to educate themselves as well as their children during his appearance Tuesday at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. It is his first major speech devoted solely to education since taking office, but officials say he plans neither to detail any requirements to achieve his goals nor to change President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind program.
Instead, a senior administration official said, Obama would speak to the importance of increasing the rigor of the standards in place and challenge states to adopt world-class standards rather than a specific standard. The official would speak only anonymously to preview the president's midmorning speech.
Schools are struggling to meet the existing requirements as millions of residents have lost their jobs and state and local governments have seen tax revenues tighten. Obama's economic stimulus plan includes a $5 billion incentive fund to reward states for, among other things, boosting the quality of standards and state tests – much-needed money for some states. "I know that talking about standards can make people nervous," Education Secretary Arne Duncan said recently. But he said a high school diploma has to mean something, no matter in which state the student earned it.
Obama advisers say they will use the economic woes as a way to sell the country on his agenda. A second senior administration official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said higher standards would be part of their discussions about how to deal with Bush-era education policy, but not just yet.
White House aides characterized the president's speech on Tuesday as a first step in an agenda to change American schools. Aides say the president will again call for the highest proportion of college graduates in the world by the year 2020, as well as pre-kindergarten programs that would send children to classrooms prepared to learn.
Obama also planned to continue his support for charter schools, although officials call them "laboratories of innovation." Educators' unions generally oppose charter schools because they divert tax dollars away from public schools, one spot where he splits with the traditionally Democratic Party-backing constituency.
He also was set to draw criticism from unions for his proposals for an "innovative compensation" plan that would pay some teachers more than others. Such a merit-based pay system is anathema to teachers' groups and likely to earn Obama a rebuke. Other items Obama planned to mention would be a simpler form for federal financial aid to college, increased investment in technology and changes to higher education. All were parts of his campaign platform.