Obama Coaxes States with School Dollars

President Barack Obama meets with students at Wright Middle school in Madison, Wis., Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2009. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

President Barack Obama challenged states Wednesday to get their education policies in line with his administration's priorities if they want a chance at $5 billion in grants.

"If you're willing to hold yourselves more accountable, if you develop a strong plan to improve the quality of education in your state, we'll offer you a grant to help make that plan a reality," Obama said while speaking at a Wisconsin middle school.

Marking one year since his victory in the presidential election, Obama said his administration's first obligation was bringing the U.S. economy back from the brink of collapse. But long-term economic success, he said, can only be achieved by making investments in education.

"There is nothing that will determine the quality of our future as a nation or the lives our children more than the kind of education we provide them," he said.

Obama came to Wisconsin a day before state lawmakers planned to vote to lift a ban on using student test scores to judge teacher performance. The Obama administration has said that such restrictions would hurt a state's chances of getting part of the $5 billion competitive grant fund, dubbed "Race to the Top."

Obama called on all states to follow the example set by Wisconsin and nine other states that have taken steps to rewrite education laws and cut deals with unions that oppose some of those changes.

The $5 billion grants are the most money a president has ever had for overhauling schools. Only Education Secretary Arne Duncan, not Congress, has control over how it is doled out. And only some states, perhaps 10 to 20, will actually get the money.

The administration can't really tell states and schools what to do, since education has been largely a state and local responsibility throughout the history of the U.S. But the $5 billion grant fund, which was set aside in the economic stimulus law, gives Obama considerable leverage.

Obama sees the test score data and charter schools, which are publicly funded but independent of local school boards, as solutions to the problems that plague public education.

The national teachers unions disagree. They say student achievement is much more than a score on a standardized test and that it's a mistake to rely so heavily on charter schools.
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