“We have to have the courage to confront what isn’t working.”

– Carl Wong, Sonoma County superintendent of schools.

After too many years in which Democratic politicians pandered to teachers’ unions and school bureaucracies, a new Democratic president last week declared that it is time to move on.

Putting aside the old politics, President Obama called for merit pay for teachers, new charter schools, uniform achievement standards, extended school days and “steps to move bad teachers out of the classroom.” He also said Americans should be prepared to increase spending for education.

Here was a plan guaranteed to offend all the usual suspects, whether they are insiders who resist all forms of innovation, or conservative ideologues who want to pretend that America can be prosperous in the 21st century without providing students the books, computers and science labs necessary for success.

“For decades, Washington has been trapped in the same stale debates that have paralyzed progress and perpetuated our educational decline,” the president said, “Too many supporters of my party have resisted the idea of rewarding excellence in teaching with extra pay, even though we know it can make a difference in the classroom. Too many in the Republican Party have opposed new investments in early childhood education, despite compelling evidence of its importance.”

Within the Democratic Party, some will portray this as a conflict over educational strategies, but it’s more about generational change. For the good of the country, it was past time that someone initiate a different and more relevant conversation.

Good things happen in every school, but at a time of profound social and technological change, public education remains among the most change-averse institutions in American society.

In November, the Atlantic magazine profiled Michelle Rhee, who is the new school chancellor in Washington, D.C., a town where tens of thousands of kids are trapped in failing schools.

Rhee, the magazine reported, fired 98 central-office workers, 24 principals, 22 assistant principals, 250 teachers and 500 teacher’s aides. She also closed 23 under-used schools and began the restructuring of 26 other schools. And she proposed a performance-based compensation package that would pay the most effective teachers more than $100,000 a year.

Speaking of generational change, Rhee is 38 years old, and Adrian Fenty, the reform mayor who appointed her, is 39.

In Sonoma County, about 9 percent of the 71,000 public school students now attend a charter school. But efforts to create charter schools met stiff resistance in the beginning.

After a failed 1994 effort to create a charter school, one parent told me, “We were ground down by dealing with the union.”

“We had signatures from teachers who thought it was a great idea – before the union told them not to sign it,” said another parent.

Today, four-year-old Roseland University Prep, the county’s most prominent charter school, has become a model for how schools might re-invent themselves, especially when it comes to inspiring Latino kids to attend college.

Last May, the school awarded diplomas to its first graduating class. Forty-six of those 62 graduates are now attending college.

No one can spend time at Roseland Prep without being impressed by the energy and optimism that seems to sustain both the faculty and the students.

Sonoma County Superintendent of Schools Carl Wong calls it “one of the shining stars of what we can do with a charter school.”

Not all charter schools are successful. A statewide study, said Wong, found that the “jury is still out” on whether charter schools produce higher achievement levels than other schools.

But there is no doubt they provide students and parents with additional choices – and the flexibility to move beyond the one-size-fits-all approach to education.

Change doesn’t come easily for public education. From personal experience, I know that you can write all the pro-education columns in the world, but if you write a column endorsing a new direction – say, charter schools or school district consolidation – the angry letters and phone calls will follow.

Shame on you, they say, don’t you understand that these changes will destroy public education?

Well, no. I never understood how it was good for public education to protect a school system that wasn’t working for many kids. And I never understood why public education in Sonoma County couldn’t survive with fewer than 40 school boards and 40 school superintendents.

At local schools, I’ve met talented and idealistic teachers, eager to do what is necessary to help kids. They deserve every dollar they are paid – and then some. But their unions ought to concentrate on salary demands, not on the politics of obstruction and on rules that stand in the way of school improvement.

No one is suggesting that any single reform will transform education, but it doesn’t make sense not to try other solutions when what we’re doing now isn’t working.