With two wars to fight and a reeling economy, the Obama administration wasn’t supposed to be about education policy at all. The stimulus bill, and now the omnibus spending bill before Congress, change that, however. The vast new resources that they shovel into public schools are sure to have an enormous and lasting impact on education. Unfortunately, though he keeps issuing encouraging sound bites, President Obama’s actions so far mostly continue the Democratic Party’s tired practices of subsidizing ineffective education policies and killing effective, cost-saving ones whenever they might threaten the adults who run the public schools.
If there exists anywhere in America an industry begging for streamlining, it’s the public school system. As of 2005, the U.S. spent an average of $10,725 per public school student. That’s about twice what we spent in 1975, in real dollars. What have we gotten for this increased investment? More teachers, smaller classes—and just about identical student achievement as measured by standardized test scores and high school graduation rates. In any other sector—the auto industry, say—we would call such performance inefficient and demand that any new influx of public dollars come with changes in the way the system operates. In education, we just look for ways to spend more on the same old stuff.
During the campaign, for instance, Obama spoke frequently about increasing federal funding for early-childhood education. Count me among the cautious skeptics that such programs have lasting effects and justify the investment. Still, at least some empirical evidence suggests that starting schooling earlier benefits low-income minority students. But instead of pursuing new policies focused on real early-childhood education, the stimulus bill simply pumps another $2.9 billion into Head Start—a glorified daycare program that has no real impact on student learning, according to high-quality, government-sponsored research. A better choice would have been to junk Head Start altogether and allocate its already outsized $6.9 billion budget to newer programs that might have a chance to succeed. The only reason for not only sustaining, but expanding, Head Start is that it is an existing program that employs real adults now. The president has chosen to help this constituency rather than pursue new policies that might actually help kids.
An even bigger chunk of the stimulus money—an estimated $53.6 billion—goes directly to states in the form of “stabilization” dollars tied to Title I funding and special education. As their label suggests, the purpose of these dollars is to protect states’ school systems from impending cuts. New York State, for example, will get about $3 billion, which will almost completely offset the cuts that it would otherwise have had to make in the short term. While protecting against city and state spending cuts might look worthwhile on the surface, it actually represents a missed opportunity. Public school systems already have more money than they need to succeed. Severe budget cuts might have finally forced them to reconsider their failed policies. Stabilization dollars just put that off for another day.
Take New York City, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg suggested that without an influx of federal dollars, budget cuts would force him to fire up to 15,000 teachers. Perhaps that would have made New Yorkers notice that union contracts’ ludicrous provisions require such firings to be conducted in deference to seniority, rather than according to teacher quality. In New York, the result would have been firing nearly every teacher hired in the last three years, while keeping older teachers with bloated salaries who might not be as effective in the classroom. Such an outcome could have finally made clear how important it is to change the system. Even better, the Obama administration could have demanded that states loosen their tenure rules in exchange for the new dollars, so that any needed staff reductions could target the poorest-performing teachers. Instead, we get more federal dollars with no strings attached, again protecting the status quo and the adults it benefits.
The tragedy is that real education reform would have cut costs, since the modern school-reform movement is all about adopting policies that do more with fewer dollars. The clearest example of putting adults ahead of kids, and even ahead of fiscal responsibility, is Obama’s push against school vouchers. Even those who argue (incorrectly, I believe) that school choice is ineffective recognize that it is efficient. The most skeptical way that one can interpret the wide body of empirical research on private-school vouchers is that they have a small but positive impact on nearby public schools, provide at least the same quality of education to students who use them to attend a private school, and do all this for about half of what would have been spent if these students had remained in the public school system.
For a variety of political and practical reasons, it would be difficult for the federal government to push for something like a nationwide voucher program. However, leadership from the White House would certainly help states adopt such laws. Better or equal educational outcomes at half the price tag sounds like just the kind of program that an open-minded administration in the middle of a budget crisis should find appealing. Why, then, does the omnibus spending bill actually cut the little federal support for vouchers that already exists? Hidden in the bill’s sea of words is a provision that would effectively kill the only school-voucher policy funded by the federal government—the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program. This program offers vouchers worth a maximum of $7,500 to about 1,800 students who use them to go to area private schools—like the one that Obama’s daughters now attend—instead of failing public schools that would have spent more than $20,000 to “educate” them. Cutting the D.C. voucher program serves no fiscal or educational purpose. It just does a favor for a longtime Democratic ally—the teachers’ unions—whose hegemony is threatened by this and other school-choice programs across the country.
Obama continues to signal, in what has already become his familiar frustrating style, that things will get better if only we wait a bit. While he is quietly killing any federal involvement in vouchers, the president has said that he intends to increase funding for charter schools. Education secretary Arne Duncan has also suggested that he will use his now-doubled discretionary budget to push increased accountability and reward states that develop the sophisticated data systems that this requires. These promises are all well and good—but it’s more than a little discouraging that with the exception of an allocation in the proposed budget for a federal fund that promotes pilot teacher performance-pay programs, they remain only promises after Congress has passed a very real spending bill.
The government’s spending represents at best a missed opportunity for education reform, and a real step backward at worst. Tying dollars to real reforms and taking the opportunity to cut costs by dropping failed programs could have helped improve our public schools. Instead, the president has chosen to pump more dollars into those failed programs. He says that improvement is just around the corner. How long do we need to wait?