President Barack Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan, sounds sincere in saying he wants to use education’s juicy $100 billion slice of the federal stimulus act to bring about constructive change, but the enemies of school reform surely are licking their chops as they see much of their status-quo agenda being fulfilled.
For many years, the National Education Association, the 3.2-million-member teacher union, has lobbied for the federal government to provide a greatly increased share of funding for local public schools — as much as one-third or more. Given that the feds have exerted considerable clout while chipping in just a 6 or 7 percent share, massive federal funding would lock in total federal control, and position the NEA’s Washington lobbyists to exert maximum policy influence.
It is true that the stimulus money, a dizzying sum about double the size of the last Department of Education budget under President George W. Bush, is supposed to go out in installments over the next two years and then expire. But who can be so naïve as to think the NEA and its budget-writing allies in Congress won’t be pressing for further, permanent stimuli, lest the fattened programs suffer “cuts”?
Many of the favored programs in the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 are precisely those the NEA has promoted for years.
A leading example is the first federal funding for school construction. Local districts will have discretion to use some of the $77 billion in budget-cut-avoiding “stabilization” funds for that purpose. In addition, the act authorizes state and local school systems to issue close to $25 billion in bonds “for renovation, repairs and school construction that will be retired through a combination of local, state, and federal dollars,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.
In many communities, there has been no greater source of pride than the schoolhouse built with local support. Now the countryside will be dotted with federal school facilities exuding all the charm of a post office. And with the Davis-Bacon Act mandating an artificially inflated wage floor when using federal construction dollars, these federal schools will not be bargains.
Another big winner in the stimulus package is early childhood education, an NEA priority that meshes perfectly with Obama’s “Zero to Five” blueprint for universal pre-kindergarten. Sharing in $5 billion of freshly printed money will be Head Start, Early Head Start and assorted day care programs.
Never mind that there has never been convincing evidence going all the way back to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty days that Head Start has helped poor children make academic gains that are sustained through regular school years. And never mind that none of this has anything to do with jump-starting the economy.
The most mean-spirited writing of NEA dogma into federal law is the stipulation that “no recipient” of stimulus aid “shall use such funds to provide financial assistance to students to attend private elementary or secondary schools.” That is meant to kill vouchers, which are greatly feared by teacher unions as a competitive threat. However, it also spikes the chance for a family to receive a scholarship for a severely handicapped child when their local public school simply doesn’t have help for him or her.
Meanwhile, the stimulus package provides a staggering extra $17 billion for Pell Grants, which, yes, students may use to attend private colleges or universities (or public, as they choose). The reason for t his inconsistency is that higher education is not an NEA-controlled government monopoly.
Hopes that Duncan and Obama will defy the teacher unions and promote genuine reform rest largely with merit pay and charter schools, both of which are likely to receive support from Duncan’s $5 billion discretionary fund. The Education Department has reported the secretary will distribute the grants “on a competitive basis to states that most aggressively pursue higher standards, quality assessments, robust data systems, and non-profits with strong track records of improving student achievement.”
As Chicago’s schools chief, Duncan made his mark closing failing schools and reopening some of them as charter schools focused on achievement. States that have shunned entrepreneurial charters in favor of letting chronically deficient schools continue with their failing ways may want to reconsider, if they wish to win some of this extra support. Otherwise, they will share only in that portion of the stimulus that will shore up the status quo so beloved by the teacher unions.
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