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Who Will Congress Put First — Children or Teachers Unions?

If any story this year deserved Page One coverage — but didn’t get it — it was Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s challenging speech July 2 to the nation’s largest teachers union.

Perhaps the most important initiative on the administration’s whole, vast agenda is Duncan and President Barack Obama’s effort to bring America’s miserably performing public schools up to international standards.

As Duncan said, in seeking to enlist the National Education Association to join the effort, not fight it, “it’s an economic imperative and a moral imperative.

“It’s the civil rights issue of our generation ... a fight for social justice.”

What he’s up against, though, was documented this month in a report also ignored by the media.

In it, the bipartisan Citizens Commission on Civil Rights traced decades of “fierce opposition” by the NEA and American Federation of Teachers to reforms designed to hold schools and their faculties accountable for how their students perform.

“This resistance has posed a barrier to improving educational opportunity for the most disadvantaged students and closing the performance gap between them and their more advantaged peers,” the report charged.

Duncan showed as superintendent of Chicago schools that he could work with unions to implement reforms — for instance, enlisting a teacher panel to help design a system of financial rewards for all adults in schools that improved student performance.

But when he cited that example at the NEA’s convention in San Diego, he got heckled, leading him to joke, “you can boo — just don’t throw shoes, please.”

In a town hall session after his speech, one NEA delegate said, “Quite frankly, merit pay is union busting,” and got cheered by his colleagues.

The test of education policymakers, including Members of Congress, is whether they put the welfare of children first — or the interests of adult teachers, administrators, school board members and fellow politicians.

Duncan definitely puts kids first. As he told the NEA: “When inflexible seniority and rigid tenure rules put adults ahead of children, then we are putting the entire education system at risk. ...

“I believe that teacher unions are at a crossroads. These policies were created over the last century to protect the rights of teachers, but they have produced an industrial factory model of education” where no one is rewarded on the basis of performance, good or bad.

After Duncan’s speech, education blogger Whitney Tilson wrote, “This is a seminal event — an education secretary in a DEMOCRATIC administration went in front of the most important union in the country, that used to OWN the Democratic party and told them a whole lotta things they DIDN’T want to hear.

“This is the equivalent of Dick Cheney speaking at the NRA and espousing gun control.”

Duncan has spent the last few months challenging not only teachers, but governors, charter school operators and education researchers to adopt international standards, develop better tests to track student performance — and teacher performance — and reorganize chronically underperforming schools.

In fact, 46 governors have agreed to work on high common standards in reading, writing, math and science, and a 47th is expected to come along.

Guess which are the holdouts: Republicans Mark Sanford of South Carolina, Sarah Palin of Alaska and Rick Perry of Texas.

But most governors will be disinclined to implement standards that will make them look bad in comparison to other states, not to mention Singapore and South Korea.

In a speech last month, Duncan reassured the governors that in administering the law that follows President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind — it will be renamed — he will reward student improvement, not punish initial failure.

So far, Congress has robustly backed Obama and Duncan’s efforts with $100 billion in the economic stimulus package for education, including $10 billion to promote reform.

Of that, $5 billion is still up for competition among states based on their plans to reform. Initial terms of the competition go out this month, and the money will flow next year.

The test for Congress is whether to allow Obama and Duncan to continue their efforts with adequate funding — which is being processed right now — and the follow-on to the NCLB, probably to be introduced in January.

Republicans, if they’re as serious about school reform as they’ve claimed for years, ought to rally to the cause because, as Duncan said in a speech in June, “we’re convinced that with unprecedented resources must come unprecedented reform.

“Just simply investing in the status quo isn’t going to get us where we need to go.”

But Democrats may be a bigger problem — especially those beholden to the teachers unions. Some appropriators have cast a skeptical eye on Duncan’s efforts to expand charter school funding, foster performance pay, get student test data tied to teachers and teachers colleges, fire persistently bad teachers and close bad schools.

Ultimately, the question for Members of Congress is, are you working to give America’s children, especially poor children, a chance to thrive and compete in the world, or to protect industrial-era work rules for union members?

Members should be judged on the choice that they make.

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