President Obama’s STEM Master Teacher Corps: Another Unconstitutional, Expensive Federal Foray into Education

The U.S. Department of Education will soon be handing out federal paychecks to teachers across the country. On July 18 President Obama unveiled his $1 billion Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) Master Teacher Corps. According to the White House:

The STEM Master Teacher Corps will begin with 50 exceptional STEM teachers established in 50 sites and will be expanded over 4 years to reach 10,000 Master Teachers. These selected teachers will make a multi-year commitment to the Corps and, in exchange for their expertise, leadership and service, will receive an annual stipend of up to $20,000 on top of their base salary. The Administration will launch this Teacher Corps with the $1 billion from the President’s 2013 budget request currently before Congress.…

Early in his Administration, President Obama called for a national effort to help move American students from the middle to the top of the pack in science and math achievement. The Obama Administration is committed to preparing young people both to learn deeply and think critically in STEM, and to equip them with the knowledge and skills necessary for jobs in the high-growth fields that fuel American innovation.…

In order to ensure America’s students are prepared for success in an increasingly competitive global economy, we must do more to ensure that teaching is highly respected and supported as a profession, and that accomplished, effective teachers are guiding students’ learning in every classroom. The Obama Administration’s 2013 budget includes a new, $5 billion program – the RESPECT Project, which stands for Recognizing Educational Success, Professional Excellence, and Collaborative Teaching – that will boldly re-envision the teaching profession for the 21st Century.

It’s not surprising that the Obama administration considers performance-based compensation a novel idea. But it is worth noting that the president is boldly going where few union-backed elected officials have gone before: toe to toe with the National Education Association. Back in 1978 the Washington Post editorialized against creation of the U.S. Department of Education:

One of the principal risks of creating a separate education department is that it will become the creature of its clientele. That clientele would not necessarily be the schoolchildren and their parents affected by the federal government’s education programs. Much more probably it would be the National Education Association, the organization of teachers and school administrators who already exert a great deal of influence on education policy in Washington. In a way, this would be giving them their own department.

[For more on the NEA’s influence in creating the U.S. Department of Education, see here, pp. 86-91.]

It’s ironic, then, that the NEA’s “creature” is now trying to circumvent it. Merit or performance-based pay remains anathema to NEA leadership, even though they’ve had to soften their rhetoric somewhat recently. At its membership conference last summer the NEA changed the wording of Resolution F-10 from the NEA “is opposed to the use of merit pay or performance pay compensation systems” to “The National Education Association believes that the single salary schedule is the most transparent and equitable system for compensating education employees.” (See here also.)

However amusing political end-runs like this one may be circumventing the Constitution is no laughing matter. The selection of STEM Master Teacher candidates will be handled “locally or regionally, but aligned to a set of national benchmarks.” There is no constitutional authority for the U.S. Department of Education to set national education standards, policy, “benchmarks,” or any other convenient euphemism. Nor is the president authorized to serve as Public-School Payroll Commander in Chief.

As a practical matter it’s also worth considering whether spending what will amount to $6 billion more taxpayer dollars (the RESPECT Project plus the STEM Master Teacher Corps) will really result in improved teaching, much less better student performance in math and science—particularly since many of the academics and experts who served on the Common Core national standards committees conclude they “are not on par with those of the highest-performing nations.”

Vicki E. Alger is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Senior Fellow and Director of the Women for School Choice Project at the Independent Women’s Forum. She is the author of the Independent book, Failure: The Federal Misedukation of America’s Children.
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