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Clinton, Obama go easy on school reform talk

Approach reflects appeal to unions for endorsements

Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been among the strongest voices in the Democratic Party for education reform. And yet, as they pursue endorsements from the nation's powerful teachers unions, both candidates have avoided reform themes and instead have emphasized union favorites such as increasing federal school aid.

In a speech to the National Education Association last month, Obama focused on the need to pay teachers more and left out his past support for making it easier to get rid of ineffective teachers. And Clinton, talking to teachers in New Hampshire in March, railed that "our children's passion is being killed" by the federal testing regimen, without mentioning her longstanding support for charter schools.

Their reticence has strongly disappointed self-described reformers in the Democratic Party who have long yearned for a candidate courageous enough to take on the teachers unions.

Both Obama and Clinton "recognize how badly schools are failing low-income kids in this country," said Whitney Tilson, an investor who is involved with charter schools and helped form a group called Democrats for Education Reform. "But the question is, 'So what?' If they aren't willing to say what they believe and advocate for meaningful reforms for a broken system, does it mean anything that they understand?"

Tilson, who helped found Teach for America, has raised $50,000 for Obama, but is frustrated by what the candidate has had to say on education.

Clinton and Obama would certainly not be the first Democrats to soften their rhetoric on improving public schools. In 2004, John Kerry unveiled a dramatic education platform that would have boosted funding while also making it easier to fire teachers. After union leadership objected, Kerry stopped mentioning the plan.

But in next year's general election, Democrats may be at greater risk than usual if they don't offer a dramatic vision for change, particularly if New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg enters the race as an independent. The former Republican, the darling of education reformers for what he's done in New York City schools, recently gave a forceful speech at the National Urban League, when he called for merit pay and declared, "No more pandering to special interests."

As first lady of Arkansas, Clinton spearheaded massive education reform in the state. The centerpiece was mandatory competence testing for teachers, making her public enemy number one to the state teachers union.

As a freshman senator, Obama sponsored a bill that would feed extra federal dollars to school districts that take on major reforms, including higher pay for more successful teachers. And the Chicago Tribune dubbed him "a leading advocate in Illinois of charter schools."

Both campaigns denied vigorously that the candidates have soft-pedaled their views and pointed out that they have yet to release their detailed education proposals.

"Hillary has been working on these issues for 35 years. She's a believer in accountability and education reform, which takes a very long time," said Neera Tanden, Clinton's policy director.

"It's not about picking sides, it's about being honest with parents and educators about how to create the best learning environment for our kids," said Obama spokesman Bill Burton.

Obama earned a brief, stunned silence at the National Education Association's annual conference last month when he repeated his support for the controversial notion of paying teachers based on performance.

But he followed with a string of caveats, suggesting that he would not link teachers' pay to students' test scores and reassuring the 9,000 educators gathered in Philadelphia that "I'm not going to do it to you, I'm going to do it with you."

When questioned about charter schools at the same convention, Clinton did reiterate her support for them.

But both have spent much more time on more crowd-pleasing topics. Clinton has proposed a $10 billion program to make prekindergarten available for all children. Obama promised to invest billions in the teaching profession.

"Don't come up with this law called No Child Left Behind and then leave the money behind," Obama said at the NEA.

Presidents of the two major teachers unions, the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers, said they have been impressed with all the Democratic contenders and have yet to decide whom to endorse. Both said they, too, want reform, as long as it is devised hand-in-hand with teachers.

Indeed, the unions are not monolithic; some state and local affiliates have worked with charter schools and agreed to differential pay under certain circumstances, for example for teachers working in the most troubled urban schools.

Teachers unions are important because of their sheer numbers -- a total of 4.6 million members between the NEA and AFT -- and teachers' heavy involvement in the Democratic Party, whether as campaign volunteers or convention delegates. (Republicans usually don't compete for union support.) The AFT and NEA leaders bristled at the suggestions that they have an outsized influence on the race.

"When people want to know about medicine, they go to the doctors," said NEA president Reg Weaver. "When they want to know about plumbing, they go to plumbers. So what's wrong with going to teachers when you want to know about education?"

Some of those who are criticizing the candidates say they have been more daring in private settings. At a fund-raiser in SoHo in April, which Tilson cohosted, "Obama said that our friends in the union are going to have to decide if they want to be part of the discussions about reinventing the education system, or be left out entirely," recalled Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, who was present.

And at another small event in New York in the spring, Clinton spoke with "real passion and urgency" about the need to strengthen accountability in the schools and promised that she is independent from the unions, Tilson recalled.

Amy Wilkins, a vice president at the Education Trust, a Washington-based advocacy group, said the country is facing a crisis in its schools, with a yawning gap between the performance of white students and black and Latino students, as well as American children's poor test scores compared with students in other countries.

Obama and Clinton "are being terribly cautious," she said. "We are in deep trouble, and it is not a time for half measures and playing at the margins."

Marcella Bombardieri can be reached at