The education president

Rhode Island's Central Falls High School faces a world of problems. Not quite half of the freshmen class of 2005 went on to graduate last year. A little more than half of the juniors passed a state reading test. In math, just 7 percent passed.

Superintendent Frances Gallo asked her teachers to step up, to help her turn around their failing school. She asked them to teach 25 minutes more each day. She asked them to tutor the kids, to eat lunch once a week with the kids, to spend more time learning how to teach effectively.

She also offered to increase their pay. Teachers at Central Falls do well: $72,000 to $78,000 a year. Gallo offered them a $3,400 bump.

The teachers union said no.

So last month, Gallo and the school board fired the entire staff.

That shocked the teachers. They were probably even more stunned by the response of President Barack Obama, who was endorsed in 2008 by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers.

Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan stood squarely with Gallo.

The superintendent showed "courage," Duncan said.

"(I)f a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn't show signs of improvement, then there's got to be a sense of accountability. And that's what happened in Rhode Island," Obama said.

Imagine that.

Health care reform has sucked all of the oxygen out of Washington these days. But education could turn out to be the most profoundly successful domestic initiative of the Obama administration.

The president has smartly used sticks and carrots to force change in the sclerotic education establishment.

He has dangled $4.35 billion, available to states that hike standards, demand accountability for teachers and administrators, and promote innovations such as charter schools. Sixteen states are finalists for the first grants in Obama's Race to the Top program.

We'd prefer that Washington didn't have to bribe the states to promote such changes. But the competition for Race to the Top challenge grants seems to be prompting change. Question now: Will Obama and Duncan draw a tough line on the first round of awards, which will be announced in April?

"Winning will require excellence," Duncan said, promising that there would be "very few winners."

Watch what happens with finalists New York and North Carolina, which still have strict caps on charter schools, and Kentucky, which doesn't allow charters. If they win, Race to the Top will look more like an aimless federal cash giveaway.

Obama this week proposed an overhaul of No Child Left Behind, the federal education law. At first blush, it looks like a well-guided attempt to thwart states that have set low bars for student achievement and give schools more flexibility in how they measure progress. The focus would be more intense on the lowest-performing schools, and on preparing students for college and work.

If you're keeping score, some business leaders have applauded Obama's plan, while leaders of the NEA and AFT have been critical. That suggests education reform, unlike health care reform, has a chance to draw bipartisan support.

In some cases, Obama and Duncan have disappointed. They're squeezing to death a successful program that gives vouchers to poor children in Washington to attend private schools. The children have done well, but the program is being eliminated. The Senate voted 55-42 on Tuesday against reviving it. That's a mistake.

Overall, though, Obama and Duncan are aggressively promoting innovation and a rapid change in the culture of public education. They're impatient. We hope it is infectious.

That's a credit to Obama, and a challenge for Republicans: Do they want to help?

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