On Obama: Why the Democratic Candidate Is Wrong to Blindly Throw Money Into Schools

In this installment of Education Watch, Bruce Fuller and Lance T. Izumi discuss Barack Obama’s latest school proposals. Go to Mr. Fuller’s post.

Lance T. Izumi, a senior fellow in California studies and the senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy, is the co-author of the book “Not as Good as You Think: Why the Middle Class Needs School Choice.” (Full biography.)

Along with a package of education proposals that will amount to $19 million annually, including $1 billion in increased funding for charter schools and classroom technology, Barack Obama recently released an ad attacking John McCain. The ad says that the Republican presidential candidate will give “$200 billion more to special interests while taking money away from public schools.”

Mr. Obama’s proposed increases, in conjunction with his slam on Mr. McCain’s supposed miserliness on education, are meant to show that he is the true champion of education. But the issue of education funding is not nearly so neat, and Mr. Obama’s proposals fall short of Mr. McCain’s call for systemic change in the form of school-choice vouchers and greater competition between the public and private sectors for the delivery of education services.

Take Mr. Obama’s proposal to better use technology in the classroom. Most people would probably say that technology in the classroom improves student learning and achievement. But the evidence is far from clear.

Indeed, several studies have concluded that students with weekly computer instruction do not necessarily perform better than those students with less or no computer instruction. In his book “The Flickering Mind,” Todd Oppenheimer, an investigative journalist, struck down the myth that technology in the classroom is the silver bullet for improving student learning.

Also, the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, Calif., nationally famous for outstanding academic performance of its inner-city students, prohibits computers in the classroom. The point here is not to dismiss technology, but simply to caution that another $500 million for classroom technology may not deliver bang for the buck.

Many principals at high-performing schools with high-poverty student populations have told me that what makes their schools successful are high expectations, teaching to rigorous academics, extensive use of assessment data to identify student weaknesses and research-based instructional methods. More computers and technology in the classroom can complement such proven practices, but no amount of high-tech tools can make up for their absence. Unfortunately, in too many schools these factors are absent, so the promise of technology will likely be illusory and the money spent wasted.

Even his call for added charter-school funding is problematic. Charter schools are supposed to be local efforts free from bureaucratic red tape. More federal money and the ambiguous “accountability” strings that Mr. Obama has mentioned in his speeches, could undercut charters’ raison d’etre. Furthermore, some successful charter leaders eschew the more-money-is-the-answer position. Ben Chavis, former director of the American Indian Public Charter School, once told me that his school doesn’t “need more money,” it needs “administrators who can manage money.” Indeed, more money won’t address bigger obstacles to charters like hostile authorizing bodies and state caps on charter numbers.

Given the numerous studies and reports over the years showing the inefficiency and ineffectiveness of government education spending at all levels, it is hard to be confident that spending another $19 billion, as Mr. Obama wishes to do, would somehow lift up the sinking ship of public education.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

Scroll to Top