The Obama Stimulus, Education, and California

Now that President Obama has signed the three-quarter-of-a-trillion-dollar stimulus package, which contains $100 billion for public schools, many observers on the left and the right are concluding that the package won’t change very much in America’s underperforming government education system.

The stimulus package contains various pots of money for public education. There’s the $54 billion state stabilization fund, designed to prevent teacher and staff layoffs, avoid cuts in state education budgets, and support school facility modernization. Another $13 billion goes to federal Title I programs for disadvantaged students. More than $11 billion will go to special education programs. Federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs get an additional $2 billion. Yet, there’s justifiable skepticism from across the political spectrum about the impact of these stimulus dollars.

Liberal Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who supports the overall stimulus package, nevertheless observes that the money for preventing teacher layoffs isn’t connected to much-needed reforms such as abolishing teacher tenure. “But if the money is going to be offered,” Cohen asks, “why not couple it with demands for reform?” Yet, as Cohen notes, of the stimulus money to be spent on education, there’s “far, far less for reform.”

On the right, Jay Greene, Manhattan Institute senior fellow and head of the education reform department at the University of Arkansas, says not to expect much from the school facilities portion of the stimulus package because “once you get beyond grass huts, spending more on buildings doesn’t help students learn more.”

Also, education researchers Marvin Kosters and Brent Mast have found that Title I funding for disadvantaged students hasn’t reduced the achievement gap between low-income and higher-income students. Further, a study by a federal researcher concluded that “Head Start participation does not have long-term benefits.”

The Post’s Cohen further warns that, “Most of the $100 billion earmarked for K-12 education goes to enrich existing programs or to ensure that they continue.” Supporting the status quo is troubling, observes Cohen, because: “More money alone is not going to make a big difference.” Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute comes to a similar conclusion.

“The sad fact is, nothing in the stimulus package changes who teaches children or how they will do it,” he says. “It’s just more of the same.”

The Obama administration would argue that portions of the stimulus package do attempt to push reform. However, the plan’s details yield little confidence that their push will result in much real change.

The New York Times reports that in order to get money from the state stabilization fund “governors must make ‘assurances’ to [education secretary Arne] Duncan” that they will develop student data systems, assign experienced teachers fairly to rich and poor schools, and so on. Secretary Duncan then decides if these assurances are convincing. Given all the promises made by politicians to improve education, it’s hard to believe that another set of “assurances” will lead to widespread better public schools and better-prepared students.

The Times also notes that Duncan has “a $5 billion incentive fund that he can use to reward states that are raising student achievement and withhold money from states that are not.” However, withholding these “incentive” funds from poor-performing states won’t cause them to change their ways. This money comes on top of a state’s existing funding. Withholding dollars that they don’t already have is unlikely to change many state policies.

California will receive around $11 billion in education stimulus funds, and most of these dollars will go to shore up or increase existing programs and spending priorities, not to require reform. For instance, California won’t be forced to eliminate expensive and ineffective programs such as class-size reduction, which, in a victory for the teacher unions, the legislature kept in the recently approved state budget. Nor will it do anything about union contracts that prevent teachers from being evaluated based on student achievement.

By pouring the stimulus billions through the same old government funding mechanisms, President Obama will get largely the same old disappointing results. He would have been better off voucherizing the education stimulus dollars, attaching those dollars to children so that parents could then select the public or private school of their choice. That, unfortunately, would’ve been too much change for this “change” president.

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.

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