Why Obama's stimulus plan may retard education reform

As President-Elect Barack Obama and his Congressional allies shape--and debate--their big economic-stimulus package, governors are pleading with them to include hundreds of billions for state governments that face whopping deficits. Most analysts of the stimulus measure will ask whether such spending will truly goose the economy, whether Obama kept his campaign promises, or how much of the bill is just pork. But those who worry about k-12 education should be asking: will it be good for education reform? And to date there's ample reason to suspect that the answer will be "no."

We cannot yet be certain what will be in the package, although several pieces have already leaked from Team Obama, including investments in school construction and broadband access. But those little amuse bouches will likely be dwarfed by the big entrée: state budget bailouts. Since most states spend one-third to one-half of their funds on education, any federal "revenue sharing" will amount to a huge infusion of cash into public-school classrooms. With Obama advisors hinting that the state portion of the bailout could reach $200 billion, that probably means upwards of $70 billion, maybe $100 billion, for primary-secondary education. Considering that Uncle Sam currently contributes about $40 billion per annum to the public schools, that's a plate-and-tummy filler indeed.

Good deal, right? Well, the teacher unions and school establishment certainly think so. To them, the argument for sparing schools from painful budget cuts is self-evident. One influential Washington-based lobbyist recently explained that education spending is smart because "it actually has the strongest possibility of being able to pay back" the government--when today's students go on to become tax-generating neurosurgeons and white-shoe attorneys rather than welfare chiselers.

Call us skeptics. In concept, of course, well-delivered education eventually yields higher economic output and fewer social ills. But there's scant evidence that an extra dollar invested in today's schools delivers an extra dollar in value--and ample evidence that this kind of bail-out will spare school administrators from hard but overdue choices about how to make their enterprise more effective.

Naturally, the leaders of any organization would rather sidestep problems than confront them. In good times, budgets expand, payrolls grow, new people come on board, and managers defer difficult decisions. Tough times thus serve as a healthful (if bitter) tonic, forcing boards and executives to identify priorities and giving them political cover to trim the fat.

What's unique about public education is that--unlike their private-sector counterparts--few schools districts ever face this day of reckoning. Superintendents squawk when they are told to hold budget growth to "just" one or two percent next year.

Per-pupil spending today is roughly double (in inflation-adjusted terms) what it was in 1983, when the U.S. was declared "a nation at risk." That huge increase in public outlays has funded all manner of questionable practices, including ever-shrinking class sizes (popular with parents and teachers, to be sure, but mostly unrelated to student achievement); an ever-growing number of teachers and other school employees; a uniform salary schedule that treats incompetents and super-stars identically; an unsustainable pension-and-benefits system; and a tenure scheme that protects instructional dysfunction. In other words, taxpayers have already spent decades funding an enormous, inefficient jobs program.

As the President-elect talks about his desire to create or preserve three million jobs, he should take a careful look at schools to see the perils of uninterrupted job creation. Thanks to instructor ranks having grown twice as fast as student enrollment over the past five decades, we today employ 3.3 million teachers. The result is indeed an "army of teachers," as Obama has promised--but an army with too many mediocrities and where the press of numbers has helped to protect poor performers while making it hard to attract and reward excellent ones.

Education, then, cries out for a good belt-tightening. A truly tough budget situation would force--and enable--administrators to take important steps that they find impossible in sunnier times. They could rethink staffing, reconsider class sizes, trim ineffective personnel, shrink payrolls, consolidate tiny districts, replace some workers with technology, weigh cost-effective alternatives to popular but pricey practices, re-examine laws governing pensions and tenure, and demand concessions from their myriad unions.

A big federal bail-out of school-system budgets will void that opportunity and again defer the day of reckoning. We'll miss a rare chance to make our schools leaner and more effective, and we'll saddle tomorrow's administrators with the same headaches and baggage as today's face. Oh, and of course we'll do all this "for the kids."

Is there a way to make the impending bailout actually do something positive for those kids as well as the nation's economy? Team Obama and its Congressional allies could take a page out of the TARP playbook and require the various education interest groups to "take a haircut," much as auto workers, investors, and shareholders have had to do. Just as the GM-Ford bailout required the U.A.W. to forfeit its beloved "job bank," states taking federal dollars could be required to overhaul their tenure laws, ban "last hired, first fired" rules, experiment with pay-for-performance, make life easier for charter schools, and curb unrealistic pension promises.

Even more promising would be for Team Obama to craft initiatives that meet three criteria: provide targeted aid to taxpayers and families in the short term; make a tangible difference in student learning; and avoid imposing long-term cost burdens that will tie reformers' hands tomorrow.

What might fit that triple bill? For starters, make the summers of 2009 and 2010 into "Summers of Learning." Invest billions to keep schools open from June to August across the land. Offer remedial classes, enrichment programs, sports camps, the works. (Struggling parents will appreciate having a safe, and free, place to send their kids during hard times.) Direct the money to schools but also to non-profit groups like the YMCA and for-profit companies like Sylvan--and encourage schools to team up with such partners. Incorporate a service-learning program whereby teenagers can travel to national parks and landmarks, do valuable public works while there, and get paid a little. Such an effort would get dollars into the economy immediately (via teacher salaries, student stipends, plane tickets, etc.) and address the well-known lag in summer learning for at-risk students. Attach a massive research effort to that initiative, requiring providers to engage in high-quality random-assignment studies and cooperate fully with evaluators, yielding a once-in-a-generation chance to generate knowledge about what works and what doesn't. And as a one-time expenditure, unlike dollars spent simply to preserve teaching slots and class size, this approach won't tie up more dollars downstream.

Building state and local education data systems is another worthwhile one-time investment that even fits under "infrastructure." Such systems can provide teachers and administrators real-time information with which to better serve their students. But developing them takes up-front cash and plenty of staff--though it just so happens that thousands of programmers and analysts are currently seeking work. Done right, this could foster key reforms in the future, such as paying teachers for the value they add to student learning. And unlike building new schools or wiring up old ones, that kind of investment can support all kinds of schools and web-based learning without locking us into brick-and-mortar commitments that we may regret in five or ten years.

Uncle Sam could also invest in creation of world-class national standards, tests, and even curricular materials. (Yes, this will require some statutory rewriting and will give some conservatives conniptions.) Spend serious money for curriculum developers to create fantastic lesson plans, lecture notes, digital materials, and videos of master teachers delivering it all. Make it available online for free, in an open-source manner. Make it market-based by giving bonuses to developers that create the most-used or highest-payoff material.

You get the idea. But will the Obama team?

A version of this piece also appeared on National Review Online.

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