For about two years now, President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan have been co-opting much of the GOP playbook on education. They support charter schools. They endorse merit pay. They decry teacher tenure and seniority. On alternate Thursdays, they bracingly challenge the teacher unions.
But on one key issue—spending—they have acted like traditional borrow-and-spend Democrats, only more so. The 2009 stimulus bill included over $100 billion for schools, most of it designed to simply save teachers' positions. A 2010 "edujobs" bill showered another $10 billion in bailout bucks on K-12 systems to forestall hard choices. And Duncan's insistence last summer that school districts had already cut "through, you know, fat, through flesh, and into bone," only served to pull the rug out from under those state and local leaders inclined to swing the budget ax, by making their tough medicine seem mean-spirited—and unnecessary.
Well. We're not sure if the Secretary of Education had a conversion experience, had a secret plan to woo the ed establishment and then hit it with tough love, or is simply reading the Tea Party leaves, but what a difference a couple months can make! The week before Thanksgiving, Secretary Duncan sang the praises of productivity in a speech at the American Enterprise Institute titled "The New Normal: Doing More With Less."
It was a humdinger. Duncan opened: "For the next several years, preschool, K-12, and postsecondary educators are likely to face the challenge of doing more with less... [This] can, and should be, embraced as an opportunity to make dramatic improvements... It's time to stop
treating the problem of educational productivity as a grinding, eat-your-broccoli exercise. It's time to start treating it as an opportunity for innovation and accelerating progress."
We couldn't agree more. Throughout the federal spending spree of the past two years, we've worried about the pernicious effects of dumping so much cash on our already-bloated schools. All this did, we argued, was prop up an unsustainable system whose revenues grew by one-third since 1995, thanks to the dot-com bubble and then the housing bubble. After three generations of steady growth in per pupil spending, education is going to have to face its day of reckoning and schools are going to have to start spending dollars smarter.
Duncan’s was a speech unlike any we have heard from a U.S. Secretary of Education-Republican or Democrat. He said resources are limited, embraced the need to make tough choices, urged states and districts to contemplate boosting some class sizes and consolidating schools, and didn't spend much time trying to throw bones to the status quo.
Duncan called for wide-ranging reforms in the name of cost-effectiveness. He said, "The legacy of the factory model of schooling is that tens of billions of dollars are tied up in unproductive use of time and technology, in underused school buildings, in antiquated compensation systems, and in inefficient school finance systems." He rightly argued that schooling had to abandon the notion that reform is always bought and paid for with new dollars and argued that it's essential to think of technology as a "force multiplier" rather than a pleasing add-on. His to-do list was comprehensive and spot on. He said, "Rethinking policies around seat-time requirements, class size, compensating teachers based on their educational credentials, the use of technology in the classroom, inequitable school financing, the over placement of students in special education—almost all of these potentially transformative productivity gains are primarily state and local issues that have to be grappled with."
In one speech, this (Democratic) Secretary of Education came out swinging against last hired, first fired, seniority-based pay raises, smaller class sizes, seat time, pay bonuses for master's degrees, and over-bloated special education budgets. Which means he declared war on the teachers unions, parents groups, education schools, and special education lobby. Not a bad day's work!
To be sure, Duncan has control over almost none of this. Still, this is classic bully-pulpit stuff, and we expect it will resonate big-time in state capitols all over the country. When the unions start busing in kids, parents, and teachers to rally against increases in class size or pay freezes, expect a lot of Republican governors to start quoting their good friend Arne Duncan.
This piece originally appeared in a slightly different format in the National Review Online.