Pushing for a link between student test scores and teacher pay, President Barack Obama on Wednesday dangled $5 billion in federal grants to states willing to undertake a top-to-bottom overhaul of their schools in support of the White House's priorities.
The day after fellow Democrats lost gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia, Obama tried to turn attention to his education agenda, an area in which he has made significant progress. While the president said his first obligation was bringing the U.S. economy back from the brink of collapse, he added that long-term economic success can only be achieved by making investments in education.
"There is nothing that will determine the quality of our future as a nation or the lives our children more than the kind of education we provide them," Obama said while speaking at a Wisconsin middle school.
Obama came to Wisconsin a day before state lawmakers here planned to vote to lift a ban on using student test scores to judge teacher performance. The Obama administration has said that such restrictions would hurt a state's chances of getting part of the $5 billion competitive grant fund, dubbed "Race to the Top."
"If you're willing to hold yourselves more accountable, if you develop a strong plan to improve the quality of education in your state, we'll offer you a grant to help make that plan a reality," he said.
Obama's $787 billion economic stimulus bill included the education grants - the most money a president has ever had for overhauling schools - for which states can compete. Only Education Secretary Arne Duncan - not Congress - has control over who gets it. And only some states, perhaps 10 to 20, will actually get the money.
Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, a Democrat, said his state needs to compete for those grants.
"We know, we have to step it up," Doyle said. "We have to face a hard truth here in Wisconsin that our achievement gap is among the worst in the nation."
Without the stimulus money the state has already received, Wisconsin would have cut the state's education budget by 10 percent, he said.
Those budgets are under pressure in every state, Obama aides acknowledged.
Nine states so far have taken steps to compete, and Wisconsin was expected to vote Thursday to lift a ban on using student test scores to judge teachers. That helps clear the way for an Obama priority: teacher pay tied to student performance.
"They had to make some changes just to join the race," Obama said.
Traveling with Obama aboard Air Force One, Duncan said the grants have helped to bring about change quickly.
"We have to get better faster," the education secretary told reporters. "There are teachers every single year where the average child in their class is gaining two years of growth - two years of growth per year of instruction. That is Herculean work. Those teachers are the unsung heroes in our society. And nobody can tell you who those teachers are."
States can't apply for the money yet, and relatively few may end up getting grants, but it's a key incentive for Obama to push forward his education plan.
The administration can't really tell states and schools what to do, since education has been largely a state and local responsibility throughout the history of the U.S. But the grants gives Obama considerable leverage. He sees the test score data and charter schools, which are publicly funded but independent of local school boards, as solutions to the problems that plague public education.
The national teachers unions disagree. They say student achievement is much more than a score on a standardized test and say it's a mistake to rely so heavily on charter schools.
AP Education Writer Libby Quaid contributed to this report from Washington.