Flypaper

After last week's bursts of Reform-o-Meter ratings, it's been all quiet on the Southwestern (Maryland Avenue) front. Expect some key announcements soon, though, about the final contours of the stimulus package (Fritz Edelstein is hearing that school construction is in but $40 billion of state aid is out) and the nomination of the deputy secretary of education.

My composite rating so far is "luke warm."

Meanwhile, what's the current temperature of Arne Duncan and company, education-reform-wise? The last time we checked, over a week ago, Team Obama had earned a cumulative rating of ???Luke Warm??? from me and an even chillier ???Neutral??? from our readers. But now, after the appointments of Carmel Martin and Russlynn Ali, and the President and First Lady's visit to a charter school, both Reform-o-Meters are up to Luke Warm. Perhaps an insider-friend of mine is right to claim that the Obama team is trying to make the education reform crowd feel good before it makes its big Linda Darling-Hammond announcement. If that's right, expect this warming trend to come to an end...

Perhaps the only thing related to K-12 education that Ohio's governor and lawmakers aren't talking about ???????fixing??????? is the State Teachers Retirement System (STRS). Odd, as few things are more outdated and in need of reform than the pension system.

We pointed out two years ago that the system is opaque, unsustainable, encourages early retirement, hinders mobility, and discourages many from entering the teaching profession. None of that has changed, and according to the system's latest annual report (which covers July 2007 through June 2008), things are only getting worse. As the economy has melted down STRS's unfunded liability has topped $18 billion (up $3.7 billion from the previous year and equal to roughly two-and-a-half times what the governor wants the state to spend on K-12 education next year). As this liability has increased, so has its amortization period, up from 26.1 years in 2007 to 41.2 years in 2008 (despite state law requiring an amortization period of no more than 30 years).

STRS attributes the dire situation to ???????investment returns being less than expected, retirees living longer and payroll growth being less than expected.??????? The pension system isn't likely to see its investments rebound...

Regular Flypaper readers know that I've been skeptical of the stimulus package moving through Congress, at least as it relates to education. I'm worried that bailing out school districts will delay painful but necessary choices and reforms; that it sets a precedent for greater federal funding of education, which will inevitably lead to greater federal micromanagement; and that eventually, reformers are going to have to win battles without buying off the education establishment.

But then I listened to President Barack Obama's comments from last night. I finally heard what I've been waiting for: a clear, compelling case for saving hundreds of thousands of teacher jobs.

I took a trip to Elkhart, Ind., today. Elkhart is a place that has lost jobs faster than anywhere else in America. In one year, the unemployment rate went from 4.7 percent to 15.3 percent. Companies that have sustained this community for years are shedding jobs at an alarming speed, and the people who've lost them have no idea what to do or who to turn to. They can't pay their bills, and they've stopped spending money. And because they've stopped spending money, more businesses have

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AEI's Rick Hess (our Gadfly Show co-host) picks up on some themes elaborated at last week's ???Left at the Altar??? event (video now available!) in this National Review Online article:

Despite the buyer's remorse that suffused conservative opinion on George W. Bush's education agenda, the real problem was not his administration's willingness to compromise with the Left on No Child Left Behind, K-12 reform, or higher education; this was appropriate and inevitable for a governing party. The problem was how it compromised. The administration embraced the expedience of grand gestures and good intentions instead of relying on a more principled position shaped by fiscal restraint, respect for government's limitations, and attention to the importance of incentives.

He also weighs in on the stimulus bill moving through Congress:

When it comes to education, conservatives can identify the conditions under which they might view the proposed aid more warmly by focusing on incentives, cost-effectiveness, and fiscal restraint. States and localities would have to demonstrate that they were reallocating dollars from less effective programs and services to more effective ones. School systems would identify and remove poor teachers and redirect

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So says Benjamin Berrafato, a fifth grader at??New Lane Memorial Elementary School in Selden, New York. This young man composed an open letter to his classmates recently (reprinted by the New York Daily News, no less) urging them to resist "illegal" homework. Why, you may ask, is homework illegal? Benjamin explains:

Homework is assigned to students like me, without our permission. Teachers expect us to do homework, even though we'd rather not. It can be hard sometimes. We get punished if we don't do it. If we do it, we get no reward; we just don't get punished.

Simply put, if we don't, we get punished, and if we do, our reward is ... nothing.

Thus, homework is slavery. Slavery was abolished with the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution on Dec. 6, 1865.

So, every school in??America??has been illegally run for the past 143 YEARS. That's something to think about.

Probably a good thing we don't let fifth graders make education policy. He does, however, cite outside sources, abide by the rules of logical argumentation, and write with relatively good grammar. I bet you he learned how to do all that while doing his...

This morning on National Review Online, AEI's Rick Hess urges Republican lawmakers not to roll over when it comes to education spending in the stimulus bill. The package has lots of fat for states and districts but, explains Hess,

It says nothing about whether this money would be spent wisely or would simply prop up current budgets, which are padded by years of increasing revenues from inflated property-tax rolls--thereby minimizing the need to scrub school spending for waste or inefficiency.

Bush may have compromised on NCLB, but that doesn't mean Republicans should be compromising now...Read the rest here.

On the same day that Ohio's legislature begins deliberating his biennial budget proposal (which counts on $3.4 billion in federal stimulus money), Governor Ted Strickland is warning that the Senate version of the stimulus bill is ???????hugely harmful.??????? According to the Columbus Dispatch, the Senate measure (which reduces Ohio's share by close to $1 billion) ???????threatens Ohio with a tuition increase for 40 percent of public-college students, the loss of thousands of state- and local-government jobs, closure of two ???????medium-sized' prisons, and 50,000 fewer people receiving mental-health services.???????

The governor hasn't indicated what a reduction in federal aid would mean for his plan to increase state spending on K-12 education by $925 million over the next two years (and by even more for the next six years after that). But, it's a safe bet that the state employee union (whose members are already facing across-the-board pay cuts and layoffs), mental health advocates, colleges and universities, and others won't easily swallow additional cuts to their budgets and the programs they care about while local school coffers continue to fill up.

Even if Strickland gets the federal aid he's hoping for, his education...

I'm sitting in my downtown Washington office but I'm thinking of snowy trails in the White Mountains. That's because I'm participating in "The Exchange with Laura Knoy," a public radio show out of New Hampshire. Joel Packer of the NEA, Gary Huggins of the Aspen Institute, and I are talking No Child Left Behind. Listen live here.

Update: Listen anytime here.

As President Barack Obama might have said, I screwed up on Friday afternoon when I reported that Senate moderates had agree to strip "most" education funding from the bill. There are cuts, to be sure, but??the majority??of the money remains. Education Week (which employs real journalists!) reports that the major reductions are for school construction, which was zeroed out (though bonds for construction remain) and the state bailout fund, which was reduced from $79 billion to $39 billion. But the big bucks for special education and Title I mostly got spared. Importantly, a little bit of Arne Duncan's "incentive grant" fund stayed in (to the tune of $2.5 billion versus the House's $15 billion). Even if they split the middle, that's??a whole lot of discretion for the Secretary and could provide some needed leverage to push states toward reform.

All in all, not a terrible outcome; as I wrote last week, less money plus more reform equals a better deal. Now let's see what happens during this week's conference committee. If the President pushes hard to keep the best features of the House bill (with its dollars for charter schools, merit pay,?? and data systems) and...

The lady with a mission has a soft side. This morning's Washington Post featured an editorial from DC Chancellor of Schools herself. I couldn't help but hear a sharply defensive tone throughout and be somewhat mystified by the whole thing. Is Madame Scorched Earth, to ad lib Weingarten's nickname for her policies, announcing the planting of a veritable forest? Or is she just trying to smooth things over after thoroughly alienating the District's teaching force?

Three things, in particular, stuck out. First, she very much wants to set the record straight. "I want to be clear about something: I do not blame teachers for the low achievement levels," she says. Although this statement, if memory serves me, is technically correct, Rhee is leaning a bit too heavily on semantics for my taste. Her argument is basically this: it's not that she blames teachers for all of DC failures, but that she understands how important teacher quality is--the most important factor, in fact--when it comes to student achievement. But that's like saying that 6 is the same as one half dozen. If teacher quality is the most important factor, then teacher quality is at the heart of DC's dismal...

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