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Last summer Barack Obama stood before a gathering of the National Education Association and, for the second year in a row, told the largest teachers’ union in the country that if teachers excel in the classroom, their work should be valued and rewarded.

To most ears, that didn’t sound like an especially revolutionary sentiment. But teachers’ unions have long opposed any sort of tinkering with the traditional pay system in the public schools, which tethers compensation chiefly to credentials held and years spent in the classroom. And since those unions form an important bloc of support for the Democratic Party, that had also been the party’s basic line about teacher pay.

But the party is starting to back away from that longtime article of faith. In the last several years, lawmakers, school district heads and even some union officials have begun proposing alternative approaches to setting the salaries — enhancing the compensation of teachers willing to work in underserved schools or to specialize in hard-to-staff subject areas, for example, or for teachers whose students show appreciable academic improvement.

The push will intensify in the coming weeks, because advocates of performance pay are planning to include $200 million in the economic recovery legislation for federal grants to test the notion. But the debate will really take off later in the year, when Congress is expected to start writing a reauthorization of elementary and secondary school policy, embodied in the 2002 law known as No Child Left Behind. At that time, advocates will push for $2.2 billion in grants, set aside in a previous bill called the Teach Act, to provide bonuses and incentives for enhancing teacher performance.

Three Democrats newly arrived in Washington to take on top-tier jobs point up this shift in the tenor of the pay debate. Each has experience with thrashing out accords with local districts or state systems to institute pay-for-performance measures, and all say they’re keen to jump-start a new federal policy to support state and local innovation in assessing teacher salaries.

Chief among them is Arne Duncan, who was confirmed as Education secretary Jan. 20. During eight years as the chief executive officer of the Chicago Public Schools, he instituted a five-year, $27.5 million pilot program to pay bonuses to entire school staffs based on student achievement gains at historically underperforming schools. Duncan has said he wants to pursue similar models of performance-based pay as Education secretary.

A pair of freshman senators from fast-growing and politically competitive states also reflect the new consensus. Colorado’s Michael Bennet , who was sworn in last week as the appointed successor to Ken Salazar , the new Interior secretary, had run the Denver Public Schools since July 2005 and brokered a deal with local unions to enhance the pay of teachers in underperforming schools and hard-to-staff subject areas such as math and science. Virginia’s Mark Warner, during his term as governor that ended in 2006, worked with his state teachers’ union on questions of teacher quality and accountability with a pilot program to pay teachers up to $15,000 extra to relocate to underperforming school districts for at least three years.

All three agree on the urgency of instituting federal support for performance pay, but they all stress that backing from the teachers’ unions must be secured at the outset. This approach marks a decided shift from the education debate when George W. Bush pushed for No Child Left Behind.

“The old debate is that you’re either for or against it — you’re either for the status quo or you’re for throwing out the whole system,” Warner said.

The new conversation, the senator said, puts the question of performance pay squarely in the context of cultivating and retaining talent in what can be a high-burnout profession. “I think there will be a willingness . . . to have a new dialogue with our teacher organizations where they don’t feel like they are under assault, but where we value teachers, we want to improve their performance, we want to improve their qualifications, we want to reward them,” Warner said. “But we also realize that we don’t have the luxury in a competitive global economy to leave bad teachers that aren’t performing for our kids.”

Avoiding the M-word

The new cohort of Democratic education wonks in Washington insist on one pivotal proviso, though: Performance pay is not to be confused with merit pay. That’s a hot-button code word for leaders of teachers’ unions, who contend that the sort of merit increases associated with No Child tie compensation too rigidly with testing scores.

“The discussion is really about differentiating teacher pay instead of years of service and degrees,” said Andrew Rotherham, co-founder of Education Sector, a nonpartisan education think tank. “Neither of those is linked through research to classroom effectiveness. This is a debate about implementing a broader set of measures so that teacher pay is based on teacher effectiveness.”

Joe Williams, executive director of the advocacy group Democrats for Education Reform, said: “The stuff that is hot right now — deals that are being made at the school level — it’s all stuff that is being presented in a way that is teacher friendly. . . . It sounds so basic, but a lot of the discussion in the past, teachers were not involved.”

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, sent shock waves through the education world in November when she announced that her union would be open to performance-pay proposals. The key to such plans is that they “have to be locally negotiated with the teachers,” said Rob Weil, the union’s deputy director for educational issues. “This is a President Obama line: ‘Working with teachers, not working on teachers.’ My interpretation is you collaborate, you cooperate, you negotiate with the local teachers’ organizations so it’s good for kids, but it also works for teachers.”

Making a Federal Case

At his confirmation hearing this month, Duncan cited his work in Chicago to stress the need for performance and differentiated pay, while contending that the federal government needs to take a more active hand in promoting such measures. “I think we can’t do enough to reward and recognize . . . excellence and get the best and brightest working in communities where historically great talent has fled,” he said.

He also said he wanted to “potentially increase” the federal Teacher Incentive Fund, which provides grants for creating performance-based compensation systems in schools where more than 30 percent of students come from low-income families. Known as TIF, the fund was launched in fiscal 2006 at Bush’s urging. Soon afterward, Duncan’s school district got one of the first grants.

TIF is still a modest program, as social-policy spending goes, receiving $97.3 million for this year. But Duncan and others say such grants are critical to giving districts tangible means to counter teachers’ unions that don’t want education budgets trimmed in other areas to fund performance bonuses. And two days after Duncan’s hearing, House Democrats included $200 million in TIF funding in their draft of an economic stimulus package.

California’s George Miller , the Democrat who chairs the House Education and Labor Committee, promoted a big expansion in pay-for-performance funding last year, when there was an effort to work on reauthorizing the education law.

But when Miller unveiled his proposal on his Web site, he ran into what he called a “mindless assault” from teachers’ unions. A Democratic committee aide likewise recalled that the heated opposition to the Miller plan was “based on complete misinformation and misunderstanding of what the proposal did.”

Nevertheless, Miller now says he’s hopeful that his party will make significant headway in promoting consensus on performance pay, especially with Duncan in the Cabinet. “To me, this is fundamental — it’s like the use of a computer. The biggest impediment to computers in schools was people who were afraid of them,” Miller said. “Come on! This is about the future of this country.”

But some caution that the changes Miller, Duncan and others have achieved across the country will not fundamentally overhaul the way teachers are paid. According to Michael Petrilli, a vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a right-of-center education think tank, that will only happen if people such as District of Columbia schools chief Michelle Rhee, who is trying to scrap tenure in the city’s system in exchange for almost doubling teacher salaries, prove successful.

“The teachers’ unions are going to fight this tooth and nail, in terms of a fundamental altering of the way we pay teachers in this business,” Petrilli said. “They will allow some experimentation around the edges. But the kinds of overhaul that Michelle Rhee has proposed in Washington, they are going to fight.”

Still, the newly arrived cohort of Democratic education wonks are confident they can head off confrontations with the unions. “There is a way to work through this,” Warner said. Duncan and his White House allies “can push these reforms, and they can push them in a more collaborative way,” the freshman senator added. “That’s going to be exciting.”