Union jobs or education reforms?

The Department of Education reported the other day that, of the $97.4 billion in economic-stimulus funding that Congress steered its way, 69 percent was “obligated” by September 30th. (The balance--including Secretary Arne Duncan’s much-discussed “Race to the Top” money--must get out the door by September 2010.)

In other words, Washington spent almost $68 billion more on education in fiscal 2009 than it otherwise would have. Though this is less than 10 percent of total “stimulus” spending, it’s a whopping big number by historic standards of federal aid to schools and colleges.

What has all that extra money actually bought? The main answer, trumpeted by the Obama Administration in a new 250-page document, is jobs, jobs, jobs. “The data,” boasts the Education Department, “indicate that approximately 400,000 jobs have been retained or created through the U.S. Department of Education ARRA grants. They reveal that the rapid distribution of this funding allowed States to fill significant education budget gaps in order to avert layoffs of personnel in public school districts and universities across the nation.” (Colorado, for example, salvaged or added 3,370 educator jobs with its $844 million.)

It’s a fact that employment was an explicit purpose of stimulus funding--Congress said as much--and with today’s jobless rate over ten percent only a churl would deny the humanitarian value as well as the political appeal of this. That said, turning schools into a jobs program--while well-run public organizations and private firms use the economic crisis to purge weak performers, cherry-pick talent, and position themselves to be more productive going forward--is a dubious way to tone them up for the 21st century.

And a tone-up--even a makeover--is what they need. When ARRA was unveiled last winter, President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan said as much. In February, Obama told Congress that “We know that our schools don't just need more resources; they need more reform.” Duncan termed ARRA an “historic opportunity to create jobs and advance education reform.” He declared that “a lot of this money will be tied to higher standards and reforms that are desperately needed.” In March, he told the House Budget Committee that ARRA provided “unprecedented levels of Federal support for our schools in return for a commitment to meaningful reform strategies.”

Eight months later, however, it’s all about jobs, this in a sector that’s been a job factory for many decades. Indeed, education employment has grown far faster than pupil enrollments and more dramatically than in many other fields. Though eking greater productivity and efficiency from the private-sector workforce has been a major contributor to U.S. prosperity and economic growth, things haven’t worked that way in our schools (or on our university campuses).

Primary-secondary enrollments rose by about 10 percent since 1970 but the teacher rolls grew by 61 percent during the same period--an addition of some 1.4 million instructional personnel. The higher education picture is similar though less egregious, with enrollments up 64 percent since the mid-1970s while campus employment doubled.

Let’s at least acknowledge that all these added employees have not boosted the performance of our schools and colleges. Seen in that light, today’s recession, however painful for individuals who might lose their jobs, could have had a useful purgative effect on the education workforce as in other fields. One might even wager that seizing this opportunity to shed the least effective instructors and ancillary personnel would result in higher quality. Such close analysts as Stanford economist Eric Hanushek estimate that substantial gains in pupil achievement would follow from (permanently) ridding K-12 education of the weakest ten percent of today’s teachers--even if that means adding a few pupils to the classrooms of those that remain.

ARRA has cushioned districts and states from having to consider such bold moves. Meanwhile, there’s absolutely no evidence--let’s acknowledge the administration’s honesty here--that ARRA’s flood of additional federal spending has done anything for pupil learning or education reform.

To be sure, the $4.5 billion in “race to the top” money that remains to be committed in 2010, though barely 5 percent of education’s ARRA funding, may well pay for some worthy changes. (See “Race to the Top: stepping away from reform?” below.) Enthusiasts, including David Brooks and a bevy of zealous reformers, point to cases in which states have already been prompted to lift their charter-school caps or revisit their data policies so that, for example, student achievement can be linked to teacher evaluations. Such measures are welcome indeed, but it’s not clear whether they justify ARRA’s whopping cost or the avoidance of belt-tightening that it has made possible. It’s good that the administration pushed Congress to include “Race to the Top” but the education stimulus package still resembles a jobs cake with a bit of reform frosting.

Moreover, while Duncan seems bent on making Race to the Top a program with real traction, will he be able to stick to his guns once Senators and Governors start to pound on the White House for their states’ shares? It could yet disintegrate into superficial compliance, canny grant-writing, and political arm-twisting. Still, optimism is a virtue. And heavy-duty reform, as Duncan well knows, remains America’s top education need.

Indeed, someone should point out that “Our children will compete for jobs in a global economy that too many of our schools do not prepare them for…[even as we have] managed to spend more money and pile up more debt, both as individuals and through our government, than ever before. In other words, we have lived through an era where too often short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity, where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election.” Oh, wait. That was President Obama, addressing Congress in February about ARRA. Seems so long ago. Today, with two-thirds of that money out the door, the best his administration can claim is that hundreds of thousands of adult jobs were saved (and even more created), not that kids are learning more or schools are more effective.

The beneficiary teachers are surely grateful. Their unions are undeniably pleased. But this is not the audacious change that was promised--and that is needed. Indeed, the fifty million young people who will end up repaying these ninety-seven billion borrowed dollars might want to inquire about a refund.

This piece originally appeared on National Review Online.

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