Back To The Future!

Some quick reax to the education parts of the President’s speech last night.

First, we’re talking about school construction again? Really? I’m getting that mid-1900s vibe…E-Rate anyone?  When I heard the President mention wiring schools for the Internet I threw on some Pearl Jam!

Actually, investing in education infrastructure makes a lot of sense from a stimulus point of view and because there is a real need.  But – cliche alert! – the devil is in the details. If infrastructure funding is spread too thin it ends up having a short-term stimulative effect but not laying the foundation for longer term initiatives.  Not unlike the debate about the ARRA recovery act, if enacted these dollars will be stimulative, sure, but they can also be stimulative and reform-oriented, too. Those are not opposing goals.  In this case, school districts can spend money in dribs and drabs, and that surely spreads it around more, but bigger projects – especially around energy efficiency, serious work to building envelopes etc…cost real money.  And the bigger projects have more long-term impact.  $30 billion is not a small sum but in the context of capital issues in our approximately 100,000 schools even with an amount like that you have to go deep not wide.  To put it another way, with the E-Rate we wired schools just in time for wireless Internet to become more efficient approach.  Let’s look ahead to the next thing with these dollars rather than investing a lot in soon-to-be-outdated approaches.

I’m still a fan of the regional infrastructure bank approach (here’s Sara Mead on the issue with a ten-year old paper that’s still relevant (pdf) and a shorter version from Ed Week) for education capital finance because it can create a more lasting funding mechanism over time.  But the infrastructure bank idea is just a small part of this overall package and based on the paper released so far it doesn’t look like it’s tied to the education dollars.

On the edujobs proposal.  It’s the same debate we’ve been having, yet again.  Are we going to have perpetual bailouts that are caused by inept hiring and human capital strategies?  Are we going to ask for any reciprocal reforms from states?  Say, just for example, committing to ending last-in/first-out layoff policies in exchange?  Here’s an example from Boston of why that might make sense. Here, too, the issue is less the spending per se than whether it’s actually going to move the field forward or just go for more of the same.

3 thoughts on “Back To The Future!

  1. Doug Levin

    Again, I think you continue to reflect a lack of understanding of the issues surrounding school reform and improvement vis-a-vis technology. The initial wiring of schools represented merely that – not a completion of that work.

    You may recall that the National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA) recently released the National Broadband Map, (http://www.broadbandmap.gov/) the first searchable map of broadband availability across the country. The findings point out that while virtually all schools are connected to the Internet, the speed of connection is woefully inadequate.

    According to the press release from the NTIA, …”based on studies by state education technology directors [i.e., SETDA], most schools need a connection of 50 to 100 Mbps per 1,000 students. The data show that two-thirds of surveyed schools subscribe to speeds lower than 25 Mbps, however.”

    One of the primary reasons for the lack of capacity is the availability of infrastructure (wired or wireless) that can deliver the throughput needed for an affordable cost – something an investment like this would begin to address.

    This capacity serves the needs of teaching and learning, assessment (think=RTTA; computer-delivered assessments), data systems, online learning, online professional development, and parent/community communications. As the use of technology in schools continues to grow, the demands on the infrastructure do as well – and, as we and others have argued – we won’t be able to meet our other education reform goals without a technology infrastructure to power it.

  2. John PIscal

    School construction? Don’t follow the model of the Los Angeles Unified School District that spent over $ 20 Billion on new schools and renovation beginning in late 2005. LA now has the distinction of having the 2 most expensive schools built in the western hemisphere. BTW, as if $ 20 Billion wasn’t enough, the District went over budget and needed more money, so they borrowed it again. Some of these schools now stand empty!!!

    What impact did this $ 20 Billion dollars have on the LA Community? Zero improvement in education scores. Last I checked, the unemployment rate in Los Angeles was 12.4%.

    We need to learn that buildings don’t teach children. We also need to learn that Districts don’t necessarily spend money efficiently. The article below highlights the incompetence, inefficiency, and corruption that happens when school districts are given money to spend on buildings.

    http://articles.latimes.com/2009/sep/30/opinion/ed-schools30

  3. Lou

    How about a requirement that school construction include mandatory apprenticeships for local high school students so that they can learn first hand skills in renovating old buildings? They could literally learn while they re-built their own schools. This is the kind of future the positive side of me wants to believe in.

    On the other hand, my cynical side is waiting for someone to tell me that I am just an out of touch romantic and brick and mortar schools are just a remnant of the path and our kids really need to learn online Mandarin via the wireless internet so that they can skype someone in china to make sure they are making our bricks correctly.

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