On education reform there has been a lot to like from this Administration so far. The President’s speech the other day was spot-on in its themes, and Arne Duncan’s $5 billion “race to the top” and innovation fund is certainly a welcome reform lever as is the emphasis on the teacher incentive fund and grants for data capacity. And Duncan’s straightforward emphasis on the seriousness of reform when talking with the public is exactly how a Democrat should approach the issue. So why then are some in the ed reform community increasingly nervous about the ability of the stimulus package to actually leverage the reform that is being promised?
Well for starters governors are already looking for various ways to direct the money to their favored projects, which may or may not have much to do with education reform. At one level, the economic stimulus level, this doesn’t matter. From an economic standpoint the goal is to get federal dollars out there and it’s somewhat irrelevant exactly how they flow. But with more than $100 billion nominally directed at education, there is real pressure to show some serious results. That’s why the Vice President recently begged educators not to squander the opportunity. And we do have an enormous education problem that the country must address. It’s not the cause of the jam we’re in now but is a longer term issue and an affront to any idea of equal opportunity.
In addition, the construction of the law means that as Brownstein and Edwards report at Thompson’s School Grants 2009 it’s entirely possible that the money can be used on activities that don’t have a lot to do with reform (pdf). This is a big deal. To be sure, some of those activities have merit. For instance, school construction is a real need and that’s obviously a stimulative use of federal dollars. But the bill was sold one way to the public (and to leaders in Congress as well, curtailing school construction spending was a key to getting a deal to ensure its passage in the first place) and there will be some accountability as well as political fallout there.
The bottom line is that actual school reform in exchange for what’s almost surely the biggest dollop of education spending during this administration’s tenure is really riding on two things: The ability of the Secretary to incentivize reform in an approximately $600 billion industry with $5 billion dollars (or less than one percent) and his willingness and ability to hold the line on guidance, waivers, regulations, and other enforcement mechanisms across a range of programs and against what is already shaping up to be intense pressure to water things down (and after two-thirds of the funding is already out the door). In terms of reform, outside the $5 billion “race to the top” fund, the legislation is built around assurances that states are doing things not requirements that they do so (lightning and lightning bugs in terms of state behavior and enforcement) so incentives and regulatory leverage is where all the action is and all the hard choices are really still ahead. That makes this one tall order for the Secretary and unless he’s really willing to make some people in Washington and around the country unhappy, 5 on 600 and a largely incentive-based reform strategy translates into a really high leverage play and some long odds.
There is still plenty of upside and at this early point any administration (and especially one in the challenging economic situation we’re in) faces more hard choices ahead than clear victories in the rear-view mirror, but in terms of school improvement there is an awful lot riding on this piece and some big challenges looming.
By the way, if you’re looking for a great website on all things education stimulus, it’s hard to beat Learning Point Associates recovery site. Resources, regs, links, ideas, etc…