The budget's trial balloons

It’s a shame that President Obama’s 2011 budget request
is likely to be roundly ignored by Congress, because it’s a pretty
decent blueprint for the direction in which the federal government
should head on education.

Why will it be ignored? Well, Congress ignores most White House
budget requests. At least that’s the lesson of recent history. The
legislative branch much prefers to do its own thing, especially when it
comes to spending taxpayer dollars. Plus, the President is in a weak
political state and that gives his friends and fair-weather friends on
Capitol Hill even fewer reasons than usual to do his bidding.

But in the make-believe world that policy wonks inhabit, we can cheer
the more elegant aspects of this proposal, even if they will never see
the light of day. Most notable is a subtle shift away from big formula
grants like Title I and toward competitive programs, in the spirit of
the Race to the Top. To be sure, the vast majority of dollars would
still go out via formula, but the plan would start to move money away
from quasi-entitlements for school districts and into incentives for
states and districts to tackle serious reforms. If your goal is to
leverage federal funds into meaningful change, that’s certainly the way
to go. Adding a billion dollars to Title I won’t buy anything, from a
reform perspective. Putting another billion dollars into the Race to the
Top might.

Several details are worth noting, too. There’s more money for
replicating high-quality charter schools, a lot more money for
innovative approaches to teacher and principal compensation, and dollops
of money for programs like Teach For America and The New Teacher
Project, which recruit top-notch folks into classrooms.

No, the budget blueprint isn’t perfect. The Administration continues to place bets on school “turnarounds,” even though we’ve got scant evidence
that they can work. It would create a nice-sounding “Effective Teaching
and Learning for a Well-Rounded Education” program in the guise of
cutting funds for the teaching of U.S. history. And, of course, there’s
the fact that education gets a 6 percent increase that the country
clearly can’t afford.

But all in all, this budget deserves a “B”--almost certainly better than what we can expect from Congress.

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