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Jon Huntsman Column: Modernize U.S. Education With Local Power, Increased Teacher Pay

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Jon Huntsman, like his GOP opponents, wants to localize education, and he's taken to the presses to hash out his educational platform.

In a Sunday column for the Concord Monitor, the former Utah governor drew on his past political moves -- like rejecting "the unnecessary federal overreach of No Child Left Behind" -- to emphasize restoring school control to localities, reducing the role of the Department of Education with the goal of removing it from Cabinet-rank and increasing teacher salaries to encourage quality teaching.

"My administration will seek to transform and modernize our education system by ending the current one-size-fits-all approach and instead focusing our efforts on how best to serve individual communities, individual schools and individual students," Huntsman writes.

This year, nearly half of America's public schools failed to meet federal achievement standards, the worst achievement rate since the inception of what many call the "broken" and "defective" No Child Left Behind law 10 years ago.

By November, 11 states had filed for waivers from key provisions of the law, following President Barack Obama's September announcement that the administration would offer a "flexibility package" to states if they demonstrate a true commitment to reform, unleashing "energy to improve our schools at the local level." More states are expected to apply in later rounds -- through next spring -- but some like California may be shying away from the option because of the high costs associated with the waivers.

In his Sunday column, Huntsman says he looks to expand Common Core Standards and offer funding specifically for "vital national priorities" like advanced math, science and foreign languages. Forty-four states and U.S. territories stated intentions to adopt Common Core curriculum standards last April, which standardize performance benchmarks nationally in an effort to uniformly prepare public school students for college admissions standards.

"Reforming our education system so that every child has an equal opportunity to succeed is the civil rights issue of our time, and an economic imperative for our country's future," Huntsman writes.

The candidate also pledges in to block Head Start funds to states so that local early education programs can be created, noting, "The Head Start program has failed to meet its laudable goals."

"If you can lock in the pillars of cognitive development around reading and math before age six, you are giving those kids the best gift possible as they then proceed through education," Huntsman said during a Republican presidential debate in September.

Last month, nine states won a collective $500 million from the federal government under the Race To The Top Early Learning Challenge, aimed to increase access to early education programs as well as aid those programs to narrow the achievement gap between kindergarteners who do and do not have pre-K experience.

In a separate report last month by the Department of Health and Human Services, safety violations -- like a machete near a play area and instructors teaching without a criminal background check -- were discovered in Head Start centers across the country.

The presidential candidate's brief mention of increasing teacher salaries as a performance incentive draws on the long-debated issue of merit pay's effectiveness. At a teaching conference in July, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told educators that teachers should have salaries starting at $60,000 and the opportunity to earn up to $150,000 based on performance.

But critics of merit pay have argued that monetary incentives don't inspire better teaching. New York City dropped its merit pay plan over the summer after a study by nonprofit research group RAND Corporation found that teachers who receive cash incentives don't prove to have more positive attitudes toward their work, nor do they yield better performing students.

The concept has received further skepticism following the Atlanta cheating scandal, in which an investigation concluded that a high-stakes, high-pressure environment that emphasized test scores as part of a teacher pay scheme led educators to partake in dishonest test administration and answer sheet alterations.

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