Silver Cloud, Dark Lining
by Michael J. Petrilli, Chester E. Finn Jr. and Frederick M. Hess
As President-Elect Barack Obama and his Congressional allies shape — and debate — their big economic-stimulus package any day now, governors are pleading with them to include hundreds of billions for state governments that face whopping deficits. Most analysts of the stimulus measure will ask whether such spending will truly goose the economy, whether Obama kept his campaign promises, or how much of the bill is just pork. But those who worry about k-12 education should be asking: will it be good for education reform? And to date there's ample reason to suspect that the answer will be "no".
We cannot yet be certain what the measure will contain, though several pieces have already leaked, including investments in school construction and broadband access. These little amuse bouches will likely get lost in the shadow of the big entrée: state budget bailouts. Since most states spend one-third to one-half of their funds on education, any such "revenue sharing" will amount to a huge infusion of cash into public-school classrooms. With Obama advisers hinting that the state portion of the bailout could reach $200 billion, that probably means upwards of $70 billion, maybe $100 billion, for primary and secondary education. Considering that Uncle Sam currently contributes about $40 billion to the public schools, that's a plate-and-tummy filler indeed.
Good deal, right? Well, the teacher unions and school establishment certainly think so. To them, the argument for sparing schools from painful budget cuts — currently appearing on editorial pages nationwide — is self-evident. One influential Washington-based lobbyist recently explained that education spending is smart because "it actually has the strongest possibility of being able to pay back" the government — when today's students go on to become tax-generating neurosurgeons and white-shoe attorneys rather than welfare chiselers.
In concept, of course, well-delivered education eventually yields higher economic output and fewer social ills. But there's scant evidence that an extra dollar invested in today's schools delivers an extra dollar in value — and ample evidence that this kind of bail-out will spare school administrators from making hard-but-overdue choices about how to make their enterprise more efficient and effective.
Naturally, the leaders of any organization would rather sidestep problems than confront them. In good times, budgets expand, payrolls grow, new people come on board, and managers delay difficult decisions. Tough times come to serve as a healthful (if sour) tonic, forcing leaders to identify priorities and giving them political cover to trim the fat.
What's unique about public education is that, unlike their private-sector counterparts, few school districts ever face this day of reckoning. Superintendents squawk when they are told to hold spending growth to "just" one or two percent the next year.
Per-pupil spending today is roughly double (in inflation-adjusted terms) what it was in 1983, when the U.S. was declared "a nation at risk." That huge increase in public outlays has funded all manner of questionable practices, including ever-shrinking class sizes (popular with parents and teachers, but mostly unrelated to student achievement), an ever-growing number of teachers and other school employees, a uniform salary schedule that treats incompetents and all-stars identically, an unsustainable pension-and-benefits system, and a tenure system that protects instructional dysfunction. In other words, taxpayers have spent decades funding an enormous, inefficient jobs program.
As the president-elect talks about his desire to create or preserve 3 million jobs, he should take a careful look at schools to see the perils of uninterrupted job creation. Thanks to teacher ranks having grown twice as fast as student enrollment over the past five decades, we today employ 3.3 million teachers. The result is indeed an "army of teachers," as Obama has promised — but an army with too many mediocrities and where the press of numbers has helped to protect poor teachers while making it hard to attract or reward excellent ones.
Education, then, cries out for a good belt-tightening. A truly tough budget situation would force and enable administrators to take those steps. They could rethink staffing, take a hard look at class sizes, trim ineffective personnel, shrink payrolls, consolidate tiny school districts, replace some workers with technology, weigh cost-effective alternatives to popular practices, reexamine statutes governing pensions and tenure, and demand concessions from the myriad education unions.
A big federal bail-out of school-system budgets will void that opportunity and again put off the day of reckoning. We'll miss a rare chance to make our schools leaner, more efficient, and more effective, and we'll saddle tomorrow's administrators with the same headaches and baggage as today's face. Oh, and of course we'll do all this "for the kids."
Is there a way to make the impending bailout actually help those kids as well as the nation? Team Obama and its Congressional allies could take a page out of the Troubled Assets Relief Program playbook and require the various education interest groups to "take a haircut," just like auto workers, investors, and shareholders have had to do. As the auto bailout required the U.A.W. to forfeit its beloved "jobs bank," states taking federal dollars could be required to overhaul their tenure laws, ban "last hired, first fired" rules, experiment with pay-for-performance, make life easier for charter schools, and curb unrealistic pension promises.
Even more promising would be for Obama and company to craft initiatives that accomplish three goals: provide targeted aid to taxpayers and families in the short term, make a tangible difference in student learning, and avoid imposing long-term cost burdens that will tie reformers' hands down the road.
What might fit that bill? For starters, make the summers of 2009 and 2010 into "Summer of Learning." Invest billions to keep schools open from June to August across the land. Offer remedial classes, enrichment programs, sports camps, the works. Struggling parents will appreciate having a safe, and free, place to send their kids during hard times. Direct the money to schools, but also to non-profit organizations like the YMCA and for-profit companies like Sylvan, and encourage schools to find suitable partners if stressed by the demands.
Create a service-learning program whereby teenagers can travel to national parks and landmarks, do valuable public works there, and get paid a little. Such an effort would get dollars into the economy immediately (via teacher salaries, student stipends, plane tickets, etc.) and address the well-known lag in summer learning for at-risk students. Attach a massive research effort to the initiative, requiring providers to engage in high-quality random-assignment studies and to cooperate fully with evaluators, yielding a once-in-a-generation chance to generate knowledge about what works and what doesn't. And as a one-time expenditure, as opposed to a measure preserving teaching slots and class sizes, this approach won't tie up dollars downstream.
Building education data systems would be another worthwhile one-time investment. Such systems can provide teachers and administrators real-time information with which to better serve their students. Developing them takes up-front cash and a lot of staff — and it just so happens that thousands of programmers and analysts are currently seeking work. Done right, this could foster key reforms in the future, such as paying teachers for the value they add to student learning. And, unlike building new schools or wiring up old ones, this kind of investment can support all kinds of schools and web-based learning, and doesn't lock us into brick-and-mortar commitments that we may regret in five or ten years.
Uncle Sam could also invest in creation of world-class national standards, tests, and even curricular materials. (Yes, this will require some statutory rewriting and will give some conservatives conniptions.) Spend serious money for curriculum developers to create fantastic lesson plans, lecture notes, digital materials, and videos of master teachers delivering it all. Make it available online for free, in an open-source manner. Make it market-based by giving bonuses to developers that create the most-used or highest-payoff material.
You get the idea. But will the Obama team?