Trendspotting Merit Pay and Charter Schools

Today’s Wall St Journal features a letter from Joel Klein, Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education, and Al Sharpton, erstwhile flamethrower, reminding President-Elect Obama that “the fierce urgency of now cannot be allowed to dissipate into the sleepy status quo of tomorrow.” Catchy. What does it mean?

Mainly three things: first, we should stay with NCLB and its commitment to closing the achievement gap between white and minority students by expanding parental choice through charter schools. Second, we need national school standards for all states so that there’s no gaming the system by dumbing down standards, as is currently the practice under NAEP. Third and most important, we have to reform the way we pay teachers by paying more for inner-city educators and harder-to-fill positions:

High-poverty urban schools have many teachers who make heroic efforts to educate their students. But there is no reward for excellence in inner-city schools when an outstanding science teacher earns the same salary as a mediocre phys-ed instructor.

Klein and Sharpton are signatories of an organization called the Education Equality Project; its members are a politically diverse lot, from Newt Gingrich and Jeb Bush to Arne Duncan, spanking-new Education Secretary, and Cory Booker, our very own mayor of Newark. Here’s E.E.P.’s Mission Statement, which cuts to the chase: push charter schools and push back against teacher unions.

We’re sensing a trend. Just yesterday Thomas Friedman of the New York Times wrote an op-ed with a similar message, and Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin, the founders of the KIPP charter schools, offered in-the-same-vein proposals in the Wall Street Journal. (See our post here.) While Friedman focuses on stimulus package options and the KIPP reps detail why charter schools help minority kids more than public non-charters, both stick to the two talking points in the Klein/Sharpton letter.

So, are our educational ills in New Jersey remedied by supporting the charter school movement and by strong-arming the NJEA to accept differentiated pay scales? Actually, these proposals are two sides of the same coin because the thesis presented by E.E.P., Friedman, Feinberg, Levin, et.al. is a two-pronged attack on teacher unions. Charter schools are, in the vast majority of cases, non-unionized and free of the encumbrances inherent in traditional labor contracts (180-day school year, tenure, strict salary guides that link pay to seniority, etc.). NJEA’s position on charter schools? You get one guess (courtesy of New Jersey Monthly):

“They tried to destroy us; they tried to derail us,” says Bonilla-Santiago, referring to the NJEA, which fought to unionize [charter school] LEAP’s teachers. What was at stake, she says, was one of the school’s guiding principles: that teachers should be paid for performance and fired if they do not meet expectations. The NJEA and teacher-organizers saw it differently. This was, they claimed, a fight for economic parity.

High-powered educators and politicians are getting behind charter schools and pay-for-performance. We live in hope that NJEA will look to the fierce urgency of now instead of the kids-last lassitude of yesterday.

What do you think?

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