President Obama Gets Tough On Schools, Supports Rhode Island Firings President Obama is promoting his "Race to the Top" initiative as a solution for failing public schools, and he also supported the recent firing of all teachers at the struggling Central Falls High School in Rhode Island. Host Lynn Neary discusses the president’s education policy with NPR’s Claudio Sanchez.

President Obama Gets Tough On Schools, Supports Rhode Island Firings

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LYNN NEARY, host:

For more on President Obamas speech yesterday, Im joined now by Claudio Sanchez, NPRs education correspondent. Good to have you on the program, Claudio.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Good to be here, Lynn.

NEARY: Now, Claudio, President Obama said in his speech yesterday that one way to halt the dropout rate is to give $900 million to states and school districts that agree to drastically change or close their worst-performing schools. But as we just heard, thats already happening at this school in Rhode Island. So how are these two things related?

SANCHEZ: Well, the fact is that reconstituting schools - which is often the term thats used - is precisely whats happened in Rhode Island. And its not unusual for schools to try and restart or jumpstart a whole new effort to get these kids to perform and to succeed. The difference is that the president has kind of jumped into this conversation, which is very, very unusual.

I mean, for the president to say, look, this school was right to do this, that the firings were justifiable. Its unusual, but it also makes or helps him make the point that hes been trying to drive home in the larger sense, which is were going to hold you - schools, teachers, administrators and states -accountable for the results that youre getting. And its time to really start doing this seriously.

As opposed to under No Child Left Behind where a threat the federal government was were going to punish you. Were going to pull the money out of your schools. Were going to force you to reconstitute, to start over again. But there was never really any follow up to that.

Now, were seeing examples like in Rhode Island of schools actually doing this. And, again, the president is obviously very supportive of whats happened.

NEARY: Well, how exactly would this initiative work?

SANCHEZ: Well, the president in his speech on Monday, for example, cited not just failing schools, you know, the 2,000 high schools out there that he calls drop out factories and $900 million to hope to address that. This is part of a much larger effort, $3.5 billion, with a B, that is targeting the poorest performance schools, up to 5,000 schools throughout the country.

And what he has laid down is a plan to deal with struggling schools: Number one, requiring, essentially, replacing the principal in half of the schools faculty which is called the turnaround model. Theres also a requirement that the school become an independently run, publicly funded charter school. Thats the restart model. Theres a third option which would require dramatic changes in school schedules, longer school days, new instructional approaches, more scrutiny of teachers performance. Thats the transformation model. And finally, if nothing else works, Mr. Obama is proposing that failing schools be shut down and students transferred to other schools.

NEARY: Well, how likely is it that steps like these will fix these schools?

SANCHEZ: Well, were going to watch very carefully to see if it does work. Because one thing thats evident is that a lot of these will clash with local collective bargaining rights in states where, you know, teachers have a contract with the school district.

In the Rhode Island example, I mean, these teachers will be laid off. The decisions to make these changes, to clean house, was done unilaterally, apparently. And this lies in the face of collective bargaining rights. So, theres a huge fight, which is why the American Federation of Teachers which represented or speaks for the union in Rhode Island in that school essentially fired back immediately after the president gave his speech yesterday and said the president is wrong. He doesnt have his facts. He doesnt know what he is doing. Hes really alienating what was already a very skeptical union membership out there that doesnt like a lot of what he is proposing.

And so, hes got to fight on his hands. But clearly, Mr. Obama has decided to take the gloves off as well.

NEARY: But why? Why now?

SANCHEZ: I think the timing is important because, as weve all been hearing for the last few months, theres a lot of money out there that is trickling down to schools as competitive grants. These are no longer formula-driven grants that go to the states regardless of how they do. These are grants that are going to, in the presidents words, reward success, and essentially deprive schools that are not doing well of some of that money. There is a lot of money that is pending. States have applied for much of this money.

And now were looking towards August for the reauthorization of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act which became, under the Bush administration, No Child Left Behind. It has now being again called the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. And this is the huge, huge piece of legislation that dominates the federal role in K through 12 education. And because, again, theres more money at stake, states now reeling from budget cuts, reeling from the prospects of even more teacher lay offs and dramatic education cuts right around the corner, I mean these are states that are really struggling and they want that money.

And so, there is a little, there is not as much resistance as one would have expected given that the federal role is now very, very aggressive. And so, now its the unions really that have taken up the cause of their membership and said were not just going to lie down and let you do this to us.

NEARY: NPR education correspondent Claudio Sanchez. He joined us in our Washington studio. Thanks so much, Claudio.

SANCHEZ: Youre welcome.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: In a moment, the confusion that gripped New Orleans days after Hurricane Katrina cost one man his life at the hands of the police.

Mr. LANCE MADISON: It is like this, its (unintelligible) of our family, you know. We really miss him. This is so unbelievable, what happened. And I hope nobody have to go through what weve been through.

NEARY: A policemans confession begins to reveal the truth. Thats coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Im Lynn Neary.

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