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Kerry' liberal education agenda contains some moderate proposals

Ohanian Comment: Their headline, not mine. This just proves that "liberal" is definitely in the eye of the beholder.

BOSTON -- Sen. John Kerry may have the same alma mater as President Bush, but when it comes to education issues, they come from divergent schools of thought.

Kerry strongly opposes public vouchers for students attending private or religious schools, wants to spend billions more than Bush on hiring qualified teachers, and opposes requiring schools to allow voluntary prayer for students.

But while education experts agree (Name those experts!) that Kerry has mapped out a more liberal education agenda, he has surprised some educators with more moderate proposals.

Kerry caused some consternation with the National Education Association in May when he proposed spending $30 billion over the next 10 years to hire 500,000 teachers, but to reward teachers with higher pay when their students' performance improved.

The NEA opposes the measure. It would use students' standardized test scores to determine whether teachers should receive bonuses, as opposed to traditional factors such as tenure.

"I believe we need to offer teachers more pay. More training, more career choices, and more options for education. And we must ask for more in return, that's the bargain," Kerry said.

Kerry has been endorsed by both the American Federation of Teachers and the NEA. Accountability among teachers is viewed as a more moderate political position, closer to Bush than the unions. His plan calls for rewarding teachers with bonuses of up to $5,000 if they can teach in "high-need" subject areas like math or science.

The senator has not affirmed his commitment to the plan since May. NEA President Reg Weaver told union officials in a memo that Kerry promised not to use the language "pay for performance," according to the Washington Times.

"The frustrating aspect for me is that Sen. Kerry advocated the idea of performance-based pay for teachers a couple months ago, but has backpedaled since (the NEA) raised objections," said Stephen Adams, president of the Boston-based Pioneer Institute, a conservative think tank.

Adams added, "It's very clear to me that Sen. Kerry does not support performance-based education reform. Kerry seems to show that his interests in education has taken second place to political interests. I'm nervous that will continue to play out with Kerry."

Kerry supported the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act drafted by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, including Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, and signed into law by Bush. Kerry has since criticized aspects of it.

The law mandates annual testing in grades 3 through 8 in mathematics, requires all students to reach a "proficient" level by 2014, heightens qualifications for teachers, and targets more resources toward poor school districts.

Still, Kerry has criticized the administration's application of them law, saying not enough money has been appropriated by Congress to fund it. He wants Congress to allocate another $27 billion to fund No Child Left Behind, beyond the 51 percent increase for low-income districts proposed by the Bush administration.

He would fund the new education spending by repealing the Bush tax cuts, which he claims disproportionately benefit the wealthiest Americans. Republicans have accused Kerry of proposing more money for the law than has been suggested by Democratic leaders in Congress.

Kerry believes the testing requirements are too stringent, and has said he does not want public schools being turned into "test-prep institutions." Kerry's plan would make the testing requirements more flexible so that the standardized tests were only part of the criteria to measure student performance.

Monty Neill, executive director of the Cambridge-based National Center for Fair and Open Testing, said he would like to hear more about Kerry's plan for student assessments.

"(Kerry) has made it clear that he thinks testing alone is not sufficient for accountability, but he really has not specified what that means," Neill said. "He has kind of left it to not much more than a soundbyte."

Neill anticipates that Kerry, if elected, would "contemplate some serious changes" to the No Child Left Behind law, not only in diminished use of testing, but the requirement of Adequate Yearly Progress by school districts.

Adequate Yearly Progress is a requirement that in every school district, 100 percent of students meet or exceed standards in reading and mathematics by 2014. In addition, districts will be measured to determine if they are meeting annual progress targets.

Some critics have questioned whether some states have sufficient money and resources to hold districts accountable to the new standards.

"Everyone knows that getting 100 percent of school districts proficient by 2014 is functionally not possible," Neill said. "I think Kerry might be amenable to changes in that formula, and changes in the way tests are used so that they are made part of a student's evaluation."

— Erik Arvidson
North Adams Transcript


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