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>Teachers ponder meaning of Obama victory for N.J. schools

>Teachers ponder meaning of Obama victory for N.J. schools

by John Mooney /The Star-Ledger

Thursday November 06, 2008, 7:17 PM

It’s the largest teachers convention in the country, a decidedly blue-tinged gathering in one of the nation’s bluest states.

But for all the exultant support of Barack Obama’s victory at the opening of the New Jersey Education’s convention Thursday, teachers on the floor of the vast Atlantic City center also worried about what happens next.

Vincent Blasse, a Trenton middle school teacher, said Obama will inspire teachers and especially students.

But asked how the new president might fix the No Child Left Behind act, Blasse wasn’t so sure. And when it came to Obama’s support of merit pay for teachers, he was downright troubled.

“It can breed greed and individualism,” Blasse said. “They will no longer see themselves as team players.”

Thus is the fragile line Obama will need to tread with education, carrying strong union support but also a few positions that would clearly roil the status quo.

On one side, Obama has pledged greater federal support for public schools with additional funding and programs like preschool and after-school services.

He has said he would make changes to the federal No Child Left Behind act, a chief villain to many teachers and their unions.

Yet Obama also has bucked the traditional labor line. In addition to championing merit pay for teachers, he espouses extra incentives for those working in high-need schools, and strongly supports innovations like charter schools.

Joyce Powell, president of the NJEA, praised Obama as “pro-public education” but quickly conceded some tensions.

“We may have our differences of opinion on some things,” she said.

Much will rest on whom Obama picks as his education secretary, with a short list of names being bandied about including Colin Powell and New York City Chancellor Joel Klein.

Obama’s general support for merit pay — providing teachers extra money based on their performance — is the one topic already raising eyebrows. He has yet to unveil any concrete proposal, but considers the idea important enough to mention publicly.

He has said it’s a concept best handled at the local bargaining table, and NJEA President Powell said she has already seen it start to creep into negotiations — if not embraced — by a handful of New Jersey districts.

She argues it should come as a give-and-take with teachers.

“If they are going to broach that, why not let us also negotiate class sizes or textbook selection?” she said. “They have to understand that when we put an idea like that on the table, other things come with it.”

A sampling of her members — nearly 35,000 of whom attended the first day of the convention — indicated similar sentiments. The younger teachers were more likely to support merit pay than the veterans, but not exclusively.

Sean Spiller, a 33-year-old science teacher at Wayne Valley High School, said Obama’s election and that of a Democratic majority to Congress is good news for teachers who want a softening in No Child Left Behind and more money behind it.

But he said the idea of merit pay for teachers was something he couldn’t support.

“You can’t have two teachers working next to each other and comparing their test scores,” he said. “It doesn’t work.”

Angela Yelverton, sporting an Obama button, described the spring in her students’ steps at Camden’s Creative Arts High School on Wednesday; the school’s band is vying to get in on the Inaugural festivities.

But she wondered how much will happen to No Child Left Behind, with all the competing points of view. “Hopefully he’ll at least listen to us in the trenches,” she said.

Yelverton, 36, said while merit pay may benefit her as a teacher, it’s a lot trickier than it sounds.

“I’m one of those who go above and beyond,” she said, “so in one way I’m for it. But what is the measuring tool? Is just staying late or working on Saturdays going to tell you that?”

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