Area school officials question Obama's education proposals

Sunday, March 15, 2009

As state and local school officials await the details of President Obama's new education initiatives, they are questioning the resources needed to comply with the emerging policies.

With his budget and education plan, Obama is proposing broad changes to the American education system. In a speech last week, he laid out several ideas, including charter school expansion, incentive pay for teachers and curriculum improvements at the state level.

Obama targeted higher education with changes to student financial aid in his budget, proposed last month.

The maximum Pell grant, which is awarded to low-income students, would increase to $5,500 for the 2010-2011 school year. The current maximum award is $4,371. The grant amount would be indexed to inflation.

In what higher education experts say is one of the more controversial elements of the budget, Obama proposed to end the Federal Family Education Loan Program. About 4,800 Southeast students are enrolled in the program, which awards federally guaranteed student loans at rates set by the government. Students borrow from banks and the government pays the interest while the student is in school and during a grace period after graduation, said Karen Walker, Southeast financial aid director.

As proposed in the budget, the government would loan directly to students, a move the administration said would save taxpayers $4 billion a year. Depending on how the program is reorganized, Walker said, there could be issues with the government assuming the responsibilities.

"There is still a question of whether it would end up being cheaper for the government to run the entire program," she said.

Students would still receive the same level of aid but the quality of service could suffer, she said.

"There's no agency currently that could absorb that volume of work," she said.

While outlining his education plans, Obama made several challenges to state education departments to improve curriculum and early learning programs.

With the increased assessment and reporting required under the No Child Left Behind Act, Missouri resources have been strained, said Stan Johnson, assistant commissioner of the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

"Any new thing that's coming down will certainly continue to increase our workload," Johnson said.

He said the department faces employee cutbacks for next year and that resources could be spread thin with more mandates.

"The degree of that strain is unknown at this point," he said.

In an effort to increase student success, Obama proposed tying teacher wages to achievement while cracking down on teachers who perform poorly.

Local school administrators said a merit-based pay scale for teachers is a complex policy to enact.

"It's easy to talk about, but it's much more challenging to implement something like that more fairly," said Dr. Ron Anderson, superintendent of the Jackson School District.

Schools have already become more accountable for focusing on student performance in recent years, said Dr. James Welker, superintendent of the Cape Girardeau School District.

"I would rather see them do something to increase salaries across the board," he said.

abusch@semissourian.com

388-3627

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Pertinent addresses:

301 N. Clark Ave., Cape Girardeau, MO

614 E. Adams St., Jackson, MO

1 University Plaza, Cape Girardeau, MO

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