Three Good Ideas for Senator Obama

From Matt Miller in the WSJ


Think of them as the policy equivalents of what Bill Clinton did when he distanced himself from the ugly racial animus of hip-hop artist Sister Souljah in 1992.

So what should Obama’s three “Sister Souljahs” on policy be? Here are my candidates:

A new deal for teachers. Mr. Obama knows we need to attract a new generation of teachers to the nation’s poorest schools, which today recruit from the bottom third of the college class. While money isn’t the only answer (prestige and working conditions also matter greatly), even conservatives admit we’ll never lure the talent we need unless the earnings trajectory for teachers in high poverty schools goes well beyond today’s average starting wage of around $40,000, peaking after 20 years near $80,000. But we don’t need to raise teacher salaries across the board — it’s the specialties (like math and science) and the toughest neighborhoods that face real crises.

Mr. Obama should therefore go beyond vague talk of modest pay reform and offer a bold new “grand bargain” to reshape the profession. He should make a $30 billion pot of federal money available to states and districts to boost salaries in poor schools, provided the teachers unions make two key concessions. First, they have to scrap their traditional “lockstep” pay scale. In this scheme, a physics grad has to be paid the same as a phys-ed major if both have the same tenure in the classroom, and a teacher whose students make remarkable gains each year gets rewarded no differently than one whose students languish. Second, it has to be easy to fire the awful teachers that are blighting the lives of a million poor children.

The unions will scream. But college students and younger teachers will crave the chance to earn, say, $150,000 if they excel. And smart union leaders know that something like this money-for-reform deal is the only way the public will ever invest to bolster teaching. Mr. Obama mentioned the idea of merit pay once a year ago. But the union blowback was so great that he didn’t broach the subject again until a few days ago in an address to the National Education Association, when (to his credit) he stood his ground and faced some boos from his union audience as a result.

But now that he’s dipped his toe in, he can capture the public’s imagination by aiming much higher. He can explicitly endorse something like the breakthrough deal being pushed by Washington, D.C., schools chief Michelle Rhee, under which teachers could opt into a new pay schedule that gives them a chance to earn up to $130,000, but requires them to relinquish tenure and seniority rights as part of the bargain. A fresh Obama call for such “market-based pay” to elevate the status of teaching would be a common-sense, cost-effective way to get the teachers we need to the kids who need them most.

Lower corporate taxes. Corporate tax rates in the U.S. are the second highest among developed countries. Democrats act as if these taxes are somehow a “freebie,” paid by impersonal entities. But “corporations” don’t pay taxes, people do. These taxes are ultimately borne by shareholders or employees. And corporate taxes help determine where multinational firms choose to locate, decisions that should be a major concern of policy makers who want to keep good jobs in the U.S. Mr. Obama has hinted he’d “consider” lowering corporate taxes at some point. Better now to say he’ll make it a priority (tied to closing corporate loopholes and broadening the base) and parry liberal moans by explaining how high corporate taxes hurt American workers.

– Health savings accounts “done right.” Liberals sensibly reject “consumer-directed health plans” loved by Republicans when these plans’ high co-pays and deductibles put undue burdens on the sick and the poor. But there’s a simple way to structure such plans to address these concerns while still bringing consumer incentives to bear on runaway health costs. The answer is to require such plans to limit the total medical costs a person can incur in a year to a reasonable percentage of income. By calling for annual out-of-pocket maximums to be tied explicitly to earnings, Mr. Obama would forge a new “third way” on health care, and cast himself as an innovator not beholden to the far left view that market forces should play no role in health care at all.

Mr. Obama likes to say, “We need a president who tells you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.” But as a candidate he’s rarely made good on this pledge. By embracing this trio of common-sense ideas that will nonetheless raise hackles among his liberal supporters, Mr. Obama can go a long way toward slipping the lefty label that could sink him.


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